"Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Sultan of Johor are seen in a blue Proton Saga... "When asked whether there is any tension with the sultan, Dr Mahathir said: “No, I don’t see anything because I went to see him and he drove me to the airport. I don’t want to comment on the sultans because if I say anything that is not good then it’s not nice because he is the sultan”"

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A complaint about Slumdog Millionaire:

"They are not slumdogs. They are the future of India.

So I was at The Cathay to catch the film of the moment. Slumdog Millionaire was initially entertaining and tightly scripted, but on afterthought, a painful experience. Not because the hitherto peaceful cinema has turned into the human highway I've long dreaded it would be, but because Danny Boyle's latest film is a shocking piece of orientalist exploitation.

Prima facie, its rags-to-riches plot uplifts the soul; look deeper, and you will see an archparable that breeds ignorance by combining two favourite Singapore pastimes: striking lottery and cultural ignorance.

It's the sort of film that reprises Crash's (2005) obligation to lazy liberalism by encouraging audiences to pat themselves on the back for their tolerance of Indians/whores/beggars. Except, of course, that they are doing so from the safety of a theatre of people hailing from a social strata as diverse as... Ang Mo Kio and Bishan. Imagine if the couple beside us had a smelly Arvind (the wax-blinded singing kid)-like street urchin as movie company.

And Jamal plunging into a shitpool for a movie star's autograph, and his mum killed by clobbering-drowning? It's cool man, because such horrific ordeals give him the mojo to win big on the India edition of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire". Worse, it touts pure luck as a deus ex machina to get the hot chicks and the cold cash.

At its best, Slumdog Millionaire is an melodrama that exploits a city's misery (have you been to a Mumbai slum?) to counterpoint the eventual happily-ever-after fairytale. At its worst, it tells the world that the way to squirm out of grinding hopelessness isn't betterment through education -- but through winning a goddamned Western game show. And where did Jamal pick up his English accent anyway?

The opening scene where kids are chased across the kaleidoscopic ethnic patchwork of Mumbai -- as the energetic soundtrack provides the requisite sanitisation -- and the scene where Jamal's mother is doing her wash is an idyllic, exoticised take of slumbitch life. Boyle's visual style is blind bombast, replete with aerial shots and quick cutaways that minimise an already-materially-comfort
able Singaporean audience's need to confront the grimy truth of life, and death, of one of the world's most destitute slums.

For all you District 10 kids and Maldives veterans, try the real Mumbai. It is a pit, one made all the more shocking by the soaring skyscrapers the majority of its trapped residents will never see. But wow! It's so colourful down there! And the people are so hardy and optimistic! It's almost beautiful.

Have you seen any documentaries of the Mumbai slum recently? Or any Bollywood films? 800 were produced last year -- this one, directed by an Englishman and produced farfaraway in his land of The Forever Imperialists, is what the West has as its telescope on the second-most populated country on the planet. "Poverty porn" anyone?

So it swept 8 Oscars, including Best Picture. So someone flew the Indian kids to L.A. and tailored their suits. So they shared the stage glory with Boyle.

But the AMPAS members must look beyond the emo on-stage group hug -- Azharuddin (Jamal) and gang will be kicked back to the slum as dogs -- and think about the film they voted for (Please do it too, and do it again for that ignorance-about-the-Middle East-breeder Zohan). As with every non-nutritious snack hastily-consumed, the guilty reflection will come in the long hours after.

Read this and other things at http://chuaclarence.blogspot.com/"

My reply:

"Criticise the movie on its artistic (or cinematic) merits, or lack thereof, but the usual tired rhetoric about exploitation and evil imperialism cuts no ice with me.

If I want Real Indian Slum Life, I'll set up a movie camera in the middle of a street in Mumbai and chain it down (so it doesn't get stolen), and push out 24 hours worth of footage, but everyone will be falling asleep or walking out within 10 minutes. For bonus kicks, I'd remove the chairs from the cinema hall and capture the scent of a Mumbai slum and release it in the cinema, but then everyone would run out immediately and I'd be sued by the cinema owner for damaging his property. Hell, I might get a mob with weapons to storm the cinema within the first minute so the audience can experience running for their lives firsthand, but then I'd go to jail for aiding and abetting violence. Face it, Real Life is boring.

People go to movies primarily to be entertained and to escape into another world: to feel good, or feel good about themselves. Sure, you can make a feature which attempt to resolve these supposed contradictions and crusades for social justice, but that belongs in the arthouse, schoolroom or the cutting room floor.

The same allegedly exploitative elements could be found in ANY movie. It's only because this is a movie about:

1) Poor people
2) India (i.e. un-West)

that people complain so much. In other words, it's the usual complaint of "white (and rich) men are evil". If it'd been helmed by an Indian director, I'm very sure the outcry would be at most 10% of what it is now. It's just reflexive post-colonial anti-colonial sentiment.

In any case, claims about "exploitation" usually ring hollow. It is usually better to give people the choice to be "exploited" than let them live in illusory dignity. Those who complain about "exploitation" would seemingly prefer that such "exploitation" not take place, but that usually leaves the parties involved worse off. The only way to justify such actions is by appeal to some nebulous form of dignity. Yet, not only can you not eat dignity, you're dehumanising the very people you seek to defend by not recognising their agency in choosing to be "exploited".

Child labour in a sweatshop may be exploitative, but if Nike closes its factories the children go back to picking through rubbish dumps or begging (as you would've learnt from the movie). Factory work actually makes their lives better, "exploitation" be damned. If you don't want them to be exploited, offer them more alternatives. Which incidentally is what the filmmakers did - they put in money for the kids' education and put some in trusts till they turn 18, since the lump sum they provided the family predictably disappeared. And this ignores the huge sums they were paid (three times an adult's annual slum salary for a month's work).

Furthermore, merely digging beneath the surface puts paid to claims that the film glorifies "pure luck" as a way to riches (which he doesn't actually want) and a girl (*A* girl, I stress), but is instead intensely bittersweet. Sure, he gets the girl in the end, as well as riches, but at what cost? A disfigured lover and a dead brother and mother. As a line in the film goes: "I wake up every morning wishing I didn't know the answer to that question. If it wasn't for Ram and Allah, we'd still have a mother."

If you want to problematise away, go look at Bollywood films. The very reason Slumdog wasn't so popular in India was because it wasn't happy-happy and escapist enough, unlike the fantasies their own movie industry churns out.

Instead of railing about rich white men, which couldn't do less to aid the plight of the people they claim to be fighting for, the standard-bearers of cultural imperialism should put their money where their pens and mouths are and donate money for the betterment of the slums, instead of making their lives more miserable by impeding projects that provide them new (and most likely once-in-a-lifetime) opportunities."
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