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)