Thursday, 26 February 2009

Slumdog's successes

A few weeks ago, I finally saw Slumdog Millionaire. A little overdue, perhaps, but late is always better than never. Well, most of the time, anyway. Long before I actually watched it, though, I read an article on The Times' website denouncing the film as "poverty porn": an article which has played on my mind at multiple points since then.

In case you're interested, the article can be found here.

Well, it might be a bit harsh to say that the article denounces the film; it does acknowledge the merits of the film's cinematography and setting. But, ultimately, Alice Miles comes to the conclusion that Slumdog is a "vile" film. After all, there's so much violence in it.

Yes, it is a violent film. This doesn't exactly mark the film as unique: it's almost rare to see a film without some facet of violence in this day and age. I do share Miles' surprise over the film's 15 rating, but that's a minor point. Scenes of blinding and immolation don't make for comfortable viewing for me, for perhaps obvious reasons, but I can stomach them when they add something to a film's plot.

And that's just the point: these scenes are evidently meant to be uncomfortable to watch. While Miles claims that the film approaches "a form of pornographic voyeurism", I'm personally left wondering exactly what about this is pornographic.

If this is pornography, surely the viewer should be taking some sort of pleasure, sexual or otherwise, from this? Wincing in shock does not, as far as I'm concerned, constitute pleasure. Overall, the film does carry a hopeful theme, but this is despite this "voyeurism" - because of a triumph over this - not as a result of it. Yes, there is a happy ending, but what else was Miles expecting?

Perhaps Miles wanted an equally violent ending. It might have been potentially more realistic, but would no doubt have attracted as much - if not more - criticism. To follow a depiction of Mumbai's slums and the horrors they hold with a hopeless ending could have been seen as simply promoting the view that nobody can ever escape from the slums; once a slumdog, always a slumdog. The film succeeds precisely because of the audacious sense of hope it manages to convey.

Tackling topics like slum life and its violence will never be easy; it's simply not something that we will ever want to accept the reality of. But it's important that people like Danny Boyle continue to face the challenge in creative and original ways; not to do so is tantamount to sweeping a massive social problem under the carpet.

The CEO of the Indian branch of Save the Children has asserted that acts like this are carried out in real life; this is real, so we do need to face upto it. Alice Miles may see Slumdog Millionaire as revealing more of our society's dark underbelly than it does of India's, but for a film like this not to have been made would have shown one hell of a lot more.