The Reviewer: Slumdog Millionaire

I felt compelled to view “Slumdog Millionaire” after the film won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. Two and a half hours later, I sat in a near state of shock as the film ended. This movie won what? I searched and searched my most respected film review sources, The New Yorker, MetaCritic, Pitchfork, and felt in shock further still as each source praised the genius that is “Slumdog Millionaire”. After much reflection, I must admit – I wholeheartedly disagree.

Even the film’s highpoints seem calculated – the cinematography captivated me, but in an uncomfortable way more than anything. The visual circus assaulted me. I thought the colors intensely overdone and the music and sound effects louder than necessary to create the intended setting. But hey, maybe this really was India. A bright and bustling circus full of grime, poverty and horror. And the sensory overload seemed of pornographic proportion. I remember catching myself a few times, staring at the movie with a facial contortion made possible only by unease.

It’s not the calculated production choices that led me to such distaste of Slumdog. It is the plot itself. Slumdog, a screenplay adapted from the novel Q&A, is a fairytale in every sense; boy meets girl, overcomes obstacle after obstacle in winning her back, and the story ends happily ever after. Well, at least their story does.

The two main characters make the impossible ascent from rags to riches, while the rest of Indian slum residents remain in destitution. Using the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire as the catalyst for two slumgoers to escape the horror of abuse, starvation, and wildly unsanitary conditions, I was unable to enjoy the success of Jamal and Latika when prefaced by such exploitation of the slums.

Even as reviewers united in their praise of the film, Slumdog is not without its criticism. Slum-dwellers protest the title itself, shamed by the reference that they are dogs. Many held signs in the streets of Mumbai, including one that said, “We are not dogs, we are the future of India.” Bloggers railed against the Fox production company after news surfaced that the child actors of the film still lived in harsh poverty, and will return there after a brief showcase of the two children at the Oscars. These two complaints by Mumbai natives and bloggers are indicative of my severe distaste for the film. Placing a fairytale against the backdrop of very real poverty and hell on earth seems insensitive if not just plain exploitative.

Now, I realize I may sound harsh. And honestly, that does disturb me. I’ve heard the argument, “You don’t go to the cinema for a dose of reality, isn’t the escapist fairytale the whole reason you go to the movies?” Yes. I am not at all making the extreme moral argument that one should never go to the movies because it is time better spent saving the world or curing the evils that plague humanity. Go out, get entertained! But I will not apologize for my opinion that the film was completely low brow. And there, in fact, is the beauty of “Slumdog Millionaire.” I have always been an art appreciator who aired on the side of mass adoration. I have long felt that it was necessary to see the good in art to keep its concept expanding, finding value in the plain white canvas of the play Art, and the La Guernicas of the world. They all had their place. But this movie, personally, this movie was plain offensive. A movie so socially acclaimed reminds me that art is so many things to so many people, and I’m back where I started. Just what is art again?