2.12.2009

Slums‘R’Us


Go figure, but the “feel-good movie of the year” is apparently Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Things must really be down when the filmic fairytale of choice has a sprawling slum built on a dump as a backdrop, when its protagonists are two poor little buggers turned orphans after their mom is clubbed to death in the middle of religious rioting, and when its highlights include mobsters blinding a kid with acid to earn bigger beggar bucks, caste prejudice, underage prostitution and a full-body dive into a brimming latrine. Sweet!

So where’s the feel-good? I guess part of the movie’s success at the box office has something to do with a lingering taste for the exotic. People seem to love Slumdog’s blasts of color, frantic pace and raw spurts of life; they agree that “slums never looked this cool”. Yes, the Third World keeps filling the promise of a relentless lust for life, an irrational drive that keeps the poor folks south of the equator going, even when faced with dire conditions and painful obstacles. What “westerners” don’t realize is that all this seemingly exuberant vitalism has little to do with joie de vivre and is actually a crude survival strategy.

Slumdog is a watered-down version of the slumsploitation genre that grew popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, revealing the violent drag of Parisian banlieus, digging into the favelas of Rio and hovering over vecindades in the outskirts of Mexico City. Aside from the continental displacement (the sizzling streets of Mumbai and the swollen alleys of its informal appendix, Dharavi) the most notable shift is from the dominant dark undertone of the previous films to a cut-up, fast-track mode where darkness is reduced to “spice” and sideline for a puerile plot the masses can relate to: good guy vs. bad guys, rags to riches and love (and money, let’s not forget) conquers all.

As for the urban milieu, which even in slumsploitation flicks has a relentless and sobering presence, Slumdog reduces it to scenery, a collection of common places and fundamentally passive container. Even when the dogs turn to kings standing on the thirthy-somethingeth floor of soaring skyscrapers built on the margins of their rundown birthplace, viewers have no idea of how this massive urban change came about, what it means or how it relates to the squalor. And no one (outside of India) cares, really. It just seems to be part of the slums and the exotic “catching up” to the West. Part of the charm of the “escape” is that in the end we are confirmed that we know best and that our ways still hold their power and value (even at times like these, when the developed world’s own sense of power and value is failing). It’s actually funny, because in reality the First World appears to be falling closer to the Third, as global dynamics dissolve boundaries and hierarchies and everyday life gets messier, and connections with the “faraway” and “underdeveloped” reveal themselves closer to our own doorsteps that we ever thought, and the divide between city and suburb and exurb and slum is disappearing in both North and South.

The only feel-good I got from Slumdog was M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” playing in the background. The song succeeds were the movie fails: in dressing up the contradictions and the piercing realities of the “underdeveloped” in a way that hits “developed” sensibilities without them even knowing it. Despite the fact that M.I.A.’s song immediately makes you want to smile and dance and enjoy the bustling creativity and rhythm this beautiful big-eyed brown-skinned girl from some faraway corner of the world has to offer, the minute you start the music leaves you with this weird aftertaste, this nagging realization that there’s something you’re missing, something you don’t quite understand, something that’s not completely right. The track, with its infectiously charming yet chilling kids-gunshot-cashregister chorus, is the type of “friendly dirt” that actually makes you think.


(Photo from Flickr user marcusfornell. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo. M.I.A. portrait by Napoleon Habeica, from babybabybaby magazine)

7 comments:

Coyote said...

Romanticizing slums is not only making the rounds in entertainment, it is also getting lip service in technocracy circles too. Robert Neuwirth made the case at the 2005 TED conference that the sense of community in some squatter settlements outweigh the squalor found there.

Similarly the PBS series e^2 tried to romanticize the slums of Cairo in the episode titled A Garden in Cairo. The slum just needed a little edging up.

Social displacement is increasing in the West. Looming economic doom is accelerating this displacement. Perhaps social control in the West is more oppressive than we realize. I will have to reserve judgment until I see it for myself.

SoulHonky said...

The "feel good" is that all of the struggles in the hero's life eventually helped him reach his dreams. It's a modern day fairy tale. Instead of a fairy godmother, he had a game show.

This line is the funniest: "Part of the charm of the “escape” is that in the end we are confirmed that we know best and that our ways still hold their power and value" Talk about a strawman. Who has ever said that is the charm? Who thinks that an American remake of this film wouldn't have done just as well (if not better at the box office)? The charm is the same as any rags-to-riches story; a kid overcomes his troubles to hit the jackpot and get the girl. It's that simple.

In fact, I'd argue that you and critics like you are the ones who are too focused on the differences in geography. When people refer to slumsploitation they ignore the countless films and TV shows centered around American's in poverty. "Slumsploitation" is an American cottage industry from Horatio Alger to the Little Rascals to gangster rap to The Wire.

I think most people who like the film see the message as universal even if the location is "exotic". That is the charm, not some cockamamie superiority complex.

Mario Ballesteros said...

Coyote:

My favorite so far is Prince Charles's ode to informality. I'm sure all those years of toiling with the royal hedge labyrinths have made him a true expert on the subject.


SoulHonky:

The feel-good thing was kind of a rhetorical question. I'm not really concerned with the charms of the movie, but with the underlying reasons that make it enjoyable for a mass audience, considering the seriousness and the sourness of the backdrop. How can going to watch a film about slums be a welcoming "escape"? Well, by neutralizing and reducing the reality of slumlife to meaningless décor.

As for insisting on geography and place, I totally agree with you. This is a blog on place and urbanism after all. Maybe you could flip through Said's Orientalism to see just how much the notion of "exotic" is precisely tied to a cultural superiority complex.

Cheers.

SoulHonky said...

"How can going to watch a film about slums be a welcoming "escape"? Well, by neutralizing and reducing the reality of slumlife to meaningless décor."

But this happens in countless films. Did "The Departed" show the realities of being poor in Boston? Did "Chicago" really give us insight into the slums of Chicago in the 20's? You fault others for not seeing the First and Third World are getting closer but it's your own premise (that you pass off as proof) that ignores this.

M.I.A.'s song is a catchier version of 2Pac's Thug Love. If she wasn't a "beautiful big-eyed brown-skinned girl from some faraway corner of the world" would her words not have made you think? And how is having a gunshot as part of a beat somehow more meaningful decor than what happened in Slumdog? To me, your love for that song is little more than rationalized Orientalism.

To me it seems like the only difference is that M.I.A. moved away from London and Danny Boyle didn't. And that's is what has affected YOUR reaction, not everyone else's reponse.

Anonymous said...

According to E! Online, there’s a new, “Slumdog”-inspired reality TV series in the works. Tentatively titled “Secret Slumdog Millionaire,”

http://news.yahoo.com/s/eonline/20090205/en_top_eo/82438

Anonymous said...

"beautiful big-eyed brown-skinned girl from some faraway corner of the world"

++++++

That just about sums up the inanity of this review -- an ethnic fetishist elevating the sexuality of an artist to a level of patronising orientalist condescension I have not seen for ages. No doubt if she wasn't a doe eyed brown skinned beauty you wouldn't dig her tunes, right? The rest of it is pretty much perverted -- the poor in slums are to be marginalised, ignored, even to address their lives is 'slumsploitation', because ultimately, the white man cynic who can't stop leering over brown skinned beauties knows best. A pitiful and pathetic screed of a review. By the way, MIA loves the movie. And she lived in India. And she'd make a gunshot sound in your face if she read your ethnic fetishising orientalist whelps about her too.

And the kids of the slums appreciate it too. And they know better than you.

http://in.news.yahoo.com/32/20090212/1049/top-their-people-like-us.html

~Pablo~

Mario Ballesteros said...

ok, this is getting a little out of hand. evidently sarcasm doesn't always come through.

dearest pablo:

first of all, the "beautiful brown eyed bla bla" line was PRECISELY supposed to sound like orientalist infatuation.

second of all, i'm not white, but mexican, and i'm not even straight, so the white man lusting over the oriental beauty doesn't really apply.

geeze, can anyone disagree without going postal?

:)