Focus on the film, not the film’s politics

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Thursday, February 26, 2009
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On Sunday night, director Danny Boyle and crew won the Best Picture award at the Oscars for the film “Slumdog Millionaire,” and in doing so, upset the expectations of a great many film enthusiasts.

Among western film critics and reviewers, the reaction to Slumdog’s surprise victory was largely positive. For example, James Christopher, writing for the Times of London, said, “Slumdog knocked the stuffing out of its portentous, and vastly more expensive rival, ‘[The Curious Case of] Benjamin Button.’”

In the Indian press, reactions to the film have been much more diverse. Some feel that “Slumdog” glorifies the destitution of India’s slums in a kind of “poverty porn,” edifying squalor instead of condemning the conditions that produce it. Subhash K. Jha of the Indo-Asian News Service expressed such a sentiment when he wrote that Boyle is selling “squalor packaged as savvy slick entertainment” and that the film “wants to exploit the Mumbai slums as a hotbed of tantalizing images conveying the splendour of squalidity.”

Others argue the opposite, saying that “Slumdog” portrays the situation of India’s slums accurately and correctly. Still others say that what matters is not the precision with which Boyle portrayed Indian poverty, but rather whether it stands up as a film. Within this discussion, there too is a debate.

Nikhat Kazmi, writing for the Times of India, dismissed the argument over whether Slumdog is true to real life, saying simply that “Slumdog is just a piece of riveting cinema, meant to be savoured as a Cinderella-like fairy tale, with the edge of a thriller and the vision of an artist.”

On the other side of the coin, Nobel Prize winner and Indian-born author Salman Rushdie said in a lecture given at Emory University on Oscar Night that “Slumdog Millionaire” — “as well as Q & A,” the book on which it is based — is a piece of fantastical nonsense. That’s a rather weighty comment, coming from the world’s most eminent magical realist.

Perhaps opinions about the film are just as diverse as the people who make up the country in which “Slumdog” is based. Melissa Pritchard, a novelist who recently took a trip to research an article on India’s brothel districts, told me as much. And an Indian co-worker told me that he’s heard the film is true to slum life, but he has never been to one, so he wouldn’t know.

Whatever one thinks of the film, its consistency with the real world should be considered only after “Slumdog Millionaire” has been criticized purely as a piece of art. It is important to recognize that films, no matter what the subject matter, often stretch or distort things from the living and breathing world in order to produce an aesthetically sound image.

What truly matters is whether a film is a work of beauty, and not what its social or political message is.

Reach Kevin at krking@asu.edu.