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1st July
2009
written by Tony
D! It's D!

D! It's D! Final answer!

My biggest takeaway from this movie: never, ever, go to India. Nearly everyone we talked to about this film was filled with effusive praise about how brilliant it is, and how moving it all was and how the story was so clever and tied everything together so nicely. Maybe I’m jaded but (and Steph agrees with me) I think this movie was thoroughly contrived. Every story that explained how the main character knew an answer (a plot synopsis is available after the jump if you're not clear what this movie is about) involved him seeing someone die, stealing, being stolen from, swimming in human excrement, or being otherwise horrifically abused. Now, I get that things in India are not good for everyone. Societal oppression, religious oppression, poverty, over-population, and a recent past as a colony that was used and abused all add up to a place that is not a little messed up. But does this a movie make? And is it kind (or fair) to the denizens of India that this movie turns their life into poverty voyeurism? I recently read that many slum dwellers protested the "dog" part of the title. Fair enough. Soon, and already in many countries, slum dwelling will be the rule, not the exception. But back to my takeaway. My boss was telling me a story about a woman he knew in college who went to India to visit and ended up having to marry someone there just so she could get out alive. True story. A brief plot synopsis: Local Indian Boy (LIB, hereafter) makes it on to India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire and gets in a lot of trouble because he knows all the answers but doesn’t know much else. So he is interrogated through the night about how he knew each answer, and every time there is some heartbreaking story of harrowing events that gave him the special knowledge to answer the question at hand. I have to say one of my favorite parts of the movie is when the host of the show says the show’s name and he says “It’s time to play Who Wants to be a Millonair[sic]!” Gets me every time, something about the way he rolls the Ls.
Yes. That is poop he's covered in, not peanut butter, caramel, or anything delicious.

Yes. That is poop he's covered in, not peanut butter, caramel, or anything delicious.

Through all of LIB’s stories we learn some things about India: Women have no rights, tiny children are often abandoned, stolen, used as soldiers in armies of beggars, and turned into prostitutes as they mature, and everything is covered in garbage. Oh, and everyone is on the take. Everyone. And apparently you can ride on a train for years, because LIB and his brother get on a train when they are 6 or 8 and when they get off they are at least 14. Oh, don’t leave your shoes anywhere, because they’ll get stolen. Along with your purse, your car, your food, your wallet, your passport, your guns and your dignity. I think the main problem for us was the sheer amount of tragedy this movie encompasses. The whole story was a catastrophe, and every time LIB launches in to another story you screw up your courage and wonder who is going to dick him over now (hint: probably his brother) and who is going to get killed. After a while you just get tired of being reminded that India is the worst place ever and it all starts to feel a little disingenuous and heavy-handed. People in India know it’s terrible there [edit: in retrospect, this is a little harsh and not really my intent. I should say, people in the India of Slumdog Millionaire know it's terrible. I'm sure there are a lot of people in the real India that are proud and rightly so.], and this movie is not doing anything to help the tourism bureau or alter any stereotypes that already exist, so I question who exactly this movie was made for. Maybe the same people who can't get enough of the holocaust shows on the History Channel. Is this the mainstream version of Nazi porn? Poverty porn? I guess a lot of people enjoy watching the trials of others in one way or another. This film just felt like too much information, so much that it loses its power and trivializes its subjects. Apparently no movie can be made in India without a dance scene or two, so at the end of the movie there is a big dance scene with everybody in it gettin‘ down Bollywood style. It’s not particularly good on a Bollywood scale and seems almost violently out of place with the rest of the film. It’s almost like the producer refused to cut the checks if there wasn’t at least one dance scene. No touching! All in all, it was a fairly engaging movie. Did it make my list of all-time greats? Certainly not. Will I forget it in the near future? Also unlikely. So it’s one of those movies, a movie that stays with you, but for reasons that don’t involve really liking it. It becomes one of those situations where you wonder if the merit lies simply in the shock and impact the movie holds, and if being shocking alone is enough to qualify as “good.” 3 out of 5

7 Comments

  1. Eva
    07/01/2009

    I hated all of the emotionally manipulative memories too. And I had lots of Indian friends in college, who loved their country and convinced me to visit it some day (granted, they were wealthy, upper-class Indians who had enough money to get their student visas), but the movie didn’t show one good thing about poor India. It really upset my mom too!

  2. 07/02/2009

    I think it was certainly a manipulative movie. I was talking to Steph after I posted this and she made some good points. One, the cinematography is simply average, and does nothing to enhance the feeling of the movie, and two the acting is also average. So we take what is by all accounts an average movie and throw in a whole lot of dog and pony show poverty acts and tragedy and that is supposed to make it good. Instead it just comes across as hard to watch and manipulative. Steph likes to say it was a puppet show where they didn’t bother to hide the strings.

  3. 07/02/2009

    As Tony knows, the more I think about this movie in retrospect, the more I really dislike it. What I don’t get is how people termed this film “uplifting” and “feel good”. It made me feel depressed and bad! Does getting the girl at the end of the movie (is that really a spoiler? Maybe, but I think knowing that is maybe the only thing that would keep some people watching…) and a jaunty Bollywood-style dance really enough to balance out the rest of the movie? I remarked to Tony that I bet if you took Trivia Winner guy, he would trade in all of his winnings to simply erase one of those memories he had.
    I think I would have disliked this movie less if it had at least had the decency to intersperse some happy memories with all the other horrific ones. I suppose it’s entirely possible some people have ONLY terrible things happen to them, but I don’t want to watch that, and I just was filled with dread every time we were thrown into a flashback. We have a friend who RAVED about this movie, saying she started to cry when she realized it was almost over because she never wanted it to end. I could not have felt more differently; I could not wait for it to be over because it was like having my fingernails ripped out one by one, since nothing good EVER happened. I don’t regret having watched the movie, finally, but that said, I would never want to watch it again. I’ll take an Up! (which as we all know, made me weep) over this any day. At least there I felt they were telling a genuine story with heart. For all the love this movie was supposed to have, I felt it had very little soul, personally.

  4. 07/02/2009

    I’ve had so many people tell me that this movie is so great–that it opened their eyes to so many things about the way people live, etc., etc. You’ve confirmed my suspicions that’s it’s probably very manipulative. The fact that it won Best Picture made me even more suspicious because the Academy seems to like manipulative consciousness-raising films that play on our liberal guilt. (Crash, I’m talking to you.) I am planning to see it, but I’m not expecting anything profound.

    And I’ve been chuckling about your “poverty porn” comment all afternoon.

  5. 07/02/2009

    I slept through most of the movie. I was excited to watch it because I really enjoyed the book (Q & A), which was mind-candy but sooooo funny. I was disappointed to see how depressing and serious the movie was compared to the book. I can’t imagine how someone would tell you the movie was uplifting or feel good. The book was, though. Anyway, in the book, of course you see the absurdity of how he knows the answers by chance, but it’s told in such a fun way that I didn’t mind. Would you read the book? They’re worlds apart, even if it was based on it, very loosely indeed.

  6. 07/03/2009

    @ Claire: After seeing the movie, I would not have been interested in reading the book it was based upon (except out of curiosity to see how the two compared), just because I was so unimpressed. But given that you liked it a good deal, as did Jackie over at Farm Lane Books, and the general consensus seems to be that the book is far more lighthearted and fun, I might reconsider. I’d probably be open to borrowing it from the library.

  7. Ida
    07/12/2011

    I thought the movie was naive. I read the book later, also thought the same thing.
    As a story about someone’s hard life, it’s naive and silly to make things tie up THAT neatly and happily in the end. It belittles the tragedy if a sheer stroke of luck helps in every impossible situation.
    As a “feel-good” story, it doesn’t work either because you can’t ignore the fact that real people actually live like that. Yeah, they deliberately put the tragedies in there, but they are real. Naive if you gloss over this, too.
    That being said, it was somehow refreshing. I liked watching it, but haven’t felt the urge to see it again and it’s been a few years now. Only the music really stuck with me.

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