Sunday, January 11, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Mixing raw reality and fantastic fiction

Today I had the chance to a see a new movie in an actual movie theater, the first one in a long time. My indie loving family and I deliberated between Milk and Slumdog Millionaire, before finally deciding Milk might be too tortured to watch on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Well, that might be true, but the first 30 seconds of Slumdog Millionaire let us know we'd made a mistake if we'd been hoping for something light and nice.

While I'd heard a lot of hype about the movie, I hadn't heard any detail about the plot other than it centered around a poor Indian man trying to win a million dollars on the Hindi equivalent of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. Jamal, our "slumdog," tells us the story of his life, with all its violence and disappointment, as he grew up in the slums of post-colonial Mumbai.

The soundtrack is wonderful, the acting superb, the romance lovely and endearing. The poverty is raw and (for the most part) inescapable, the injustices of modern India obvious. But I think it's the general premise of the movie, the skeletons of the plot, that left me with a feeling of dissatisfaction. For 100 minutes or more, this movie illustrates in a most heartbreaking and gritty way, the slums. The poverty, the violence, the broken system of India feels so raw, and then suddenly the wordly angst of the first-world viewer is distracted, when something completely fantastic happens: (SPOILER ALERT) Jamal wins the million dollars, and the girl, mostly because he got lucky, because as Jamal himself says, his destiny was simply written this way. After the money and the girl are safe in his arms, the end credits literally roll amid scenes from a Bollywood-inspired finale, complete with Jamal, his lady, and a train station full of celebrating slumdogs dancing and singing.

The fact that Jamal's success, after all his pain and loss, is one in a billion (one in a billion in India alone, let's not even try to consider the entire globe here), is a moot point. So where does the movie leave us? We feel really good for Jamal. He's beaten the odds. He has found happiness even though the world around him is chaos. But what about the world? They're left singing and dancing like in some of the most feel-good fictions we can create for ourselves. The directors (Trainspotting's Danny Boyle and Monsoon Wedding's Loveleen Tandan) make no apologies for this resignation to unreality to tie up the all too real loose ends of the movie. Are we really supposed to buy it? Can't art do any better than that? Is it a matter of deciding on a ridiculously unrealistic conclusion that makes us happy or a realistic, depressing, frustrating ending? Is there no in-between? I'm honestly not sure right now. It may be that question that has left me so restless and not the movie itself.

Trailer, if you're interested:


Roxie said...

The dance at the end was completely unrelated to the plot of the movie. A lot of Bollywood films end with a large cast & crew dance.

Arvilla said...

I don't think I understand your point. Was it directly related to the over-all plot of the film? Obviously not. But the tacking on of a dance scene to the end of a film, yes, even in Bollywood films, is to mark celebration and fun, is it not? It has significance. It's light and fantastic and cool. And tacking something like that onto a film about gritty poverty is a little odd. Just like ending a film about gritty poverty with someone winning Who Wants to be a Millionaire causes a little whip lash. Whether the dance scene had anything to do with the plot itself is irrelevant.