It's Not Poverty Porn: Defending "Slumdog" - NBC New York

It's Not Poverty Porn: Defending "Slumdog"

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    BEST PICTURE: "Slumdog Millionaire," a favorite at the Golden Globes, did not escape Oscar attention. It grabbed a number of nominations including best picture, best director and best cinematography.

    Not unlike a canker sore that flares up annually in a Pavlovian response to seeing Ryan Seacrest at any awards pre-show, generally dour critics have, as is customary and similarly Pavlovian of them this time of year, proceeded to isolate and drag through the mud the single film they think was the most undeserving Oscar contender. Last year it was Juno. "Teenagers don't get pregnant! Teenagers can't crack wise!" cried the esoteric, shapeless horde. And look how wrong they were. This year, their victim is Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire. And what's the shapeless horde crying now, arms folded and brows furrowed? "The poors aren't glamorous! In India, the poors can't speak English! Why, the poors don't ever end up looking so pretty, either!" All true. Why, some are even alleging that Slumdog is nothing more than simple poverty porn. But they're just being foolishly reductive, perhaps willfully naïve.

    The film doesn’t indulgently wallow in the dirt and filth of Mumbai. Rather, it casts light onto the corridors, walkways, and well, everywhere else of a bustling Indian metropolis whose international presence usually enjoys the farfetched Edenic flourishes of campy Bollywood musicals. That dirt and filth is the reality of city limits. What Danny Boyle is doing is celebrating a common part of the city’s identity that far too often gets airbrushed or lumped into a nonspecific portrait of global poverty. But his celebration doesn’t include a willful ignorance of the way things work.

    I suppose it’s even more disheartening that the editor-in-chief of this Indian rag decrees, “Don’t see Slumdog Millionaire. It sucks!” It’s the kind of simplistic proclamation someone might make if they knew they were caught in a lie, or worse, caught trying to clumsily cover up a lie. Among his louder concerns is Boyle’s nationality. His being a non-Indian outsider makes him absolutely unable to fathom the complex political psychology of a country as mired as India. Without taking sides on that hot-button, Boyle’s approach to the film couldn’t have felt less like cultural imperialism. If anything, it was more of a love letter to India and more specifically, to Mumbai. Boyle wasn’t out to bring down the country’s reputation or capitalize on its socioeconomic rifts. And remembering the circumstances surrounding the film’s limited release, a love letter couldn’t have been more well-timed.

    More broadly, for everyone dismissing the film as a disconnected attempt at realism: Guys, lighten up. At its heart, Slumdog is nuanced recessionomic fare. It’s a feel-good fairytale whose plot-holes we can forgive with pleasantly magnanimous leaps of faith. It’s not like the film was trying to pull a fast one under us, pretending that it wasn’t pure kismet when the film’s leads, always torn apart, reunited for the umpteenth time. The cast even assembled for a winsome dance sequence at the end in a tribute to the way Bollywood epics always tie up their loose ends neatly.

    But even with all of its connect-the-dot contrivances, Slumdog didn’t play out like much Oscar fare; it never eyed the little gold man from the outset, it had no big-money backing, no Hollywood talent. And in that way, the film itself has managed to espouse the very underdog spirit of its script. But still. Some of you continue to think that Slumdog isn’t serious enough (boring enough?) to earn its nominations. Go watch Frost/Nixon then—I hear that one’s quite swell.

    By Alisa Gould-Simon