The increasing commercial success and critical accolades for Slumdog Millionaire continue to perplex and baffle me. When I originally saw the film in early December, I gave it a mixed review to be kind. In truth I loathed the film and found it morally repugnant, but with all the awards being showered on it, it made me question whether or not I missed something or totally misinterpreted the message.
For me the film was a simplistic love story wrapped around a contrived “rags-to-riches” plot device with character development done with a hacksaw, headache inducing visuals and editing, and an exploitative view of an exotic third-world locale. Yes, it had some interesting moments, and I certainly can see how on a surface level the colorful slums of Mumbai might appeal to Westerners thinking they were receiving some sort of lesson in Indian culture. The film’s cockeyed (and misguided) optimism certainly has struck a cord in these troubling times. But I can’t fathom all the undying love people have been proclaiming for Danny Boyle’s silly opus.
Overseas, outside of Boyle’s British homeland, the film has been receiving slightly more mixed reactions, and in India things have become violent on the streets of Mumbai where residents have been declaring the film slanderous, offensive and untrue. The few, and often ridiculed, detractors have called the film “poverty porn.” I don’t know if I would go that far, as I found the story too stupid to be that calculated and offensive. Meanwhile, it continues to lap up award after award, and curiously nowhere has the Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan received any kudos. Where’s the love for Loveleen? All credit has gone to Danny “ADD” Boyle, and even he forgot to thank his co-director when he scooped up the Golden Globe for best director.
Still, I can’t recall a time when I felt so out of touch with the majority of the movie-going world and critics. If it goes on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, it will be worst film ever to receive the honor. The majority of people have been nothing but ecstatic over this, at best mediocre and at worst totally manipulative, movie. But maybe it’s me. Maybe I just “don’t get it.” I felt compelled to explore deeper the appeal of the film. All paths lead me to one film that came before it, Mira Nair’s Salaam, Bombay!
Indian born Mira Nair is arguably one of the best female directors working today. Her Moonson Wedding and The Namesake are near-masterpieces, deeply heartfelt works beautifully photographed and masterfully constructed. Nair is one of those rare directors whose follies are even of the highest quality. Her overly opulent and scandalous Kama Sutra and her New Jersey-based white-trash soap opera Hysterical Blindness are nothing if not riveting to watch. Her 1988 debut film, Salaam, Bombay! was one that I had not seen until just now after all the comparisons to Slumdog Millionaire drove me to finally discover it.Nair’s film depicts a young orphan who finds his way to the streets of Bombay (Mumbai) and becomes a tea delivery boy in the slums. Nair made her film in a documentary-style, but remember, this was before documentary-style was synonymous with obnoxious shaky hand-held camera work. The camera’s eye here is steady, probing and deep, showing a vibrant and breathing cityscape that is beautiful and ugly and gleaming and crumbling all the same. Nair pulls no punches and invites the audience to become invested in the varying characters inhabiting the slums, many of them Dickensian flavored archetypes, but all achingly alive and real. Nair’s somber and melodic Bombay, unlike Boyle’s bombastic Mumbai, is a city awash in small intimate moments like a prostitute and her little girl inviting the rain-soaked tea boy in from the streets for a dry towel and some dancing. Sure, there are moments here too that could be called exploitative, but for Nair, these moments hit home. They are raw and real and captured with great lucidity by a native looking to shine a light on the plight of her people, not some outsider clawing his way to the top for praise.
There are no happy endings in Nair’s depiction of Bombay. Any love between two people is tossed asunder in the waves of transient human beings flowing through the crowded streets like violent flood waters. Her closing shot of the little boy alone, dirty, exhausted and overwhelmed by tears as he stares into the camera before the closing epitaph dedicates the film to all the children on the streets of Bombay speaks greater multitudes of truth about the human condition than Boyle’s ham-fisted and contrived “love conquers all…but only with money” message.
Love does not conquer all. Money is not power. Feeling something for someone half way around the world because you’ve been given a small glimpse into their life, the ability to feel empathy for another human being, the innate will to survive in any environment, these are the things that should be celebrated. Nair’s Salaam, Bombay! does just that in a very personal way. Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire views these things as second-rate plot devices designed to tug at our worn-out heart-strings and guises them under a maudlin mask of half-truths and false hope.
I didn’t fall for it, and neither should you.
Check out my original review of Slumdog Millionaire.
Written by David H. Schleicher