Not “uplifting”

I have been hearing a lot about Slumdog Millionaire – the media, both foreign and Indian, have been going for saturation coverage – calling it “colorful”, “uplifting”, “feel good” “celebration of India” etc etc and now that it has swept the Globes, there is going to be no respite till the Oscars, or even after. But if you have read the story, or probably seen it, it might be colorful, but none of the other. And there were very few articles (of those I read of course) that talked about this, though some people do seem to be bashing it for other purposes like the ones I mention below. This post-Golden Globe review nails it however-

Slumdog Millionaire is only a joyous and uplifting film if you don’t hold the people in it to the same minimum, moral standards you might hold your neighbor too. Slumdog Millionaire is only a magnificent celebration of Indian culture if your view of Indian culture is one of inhumanity and evil. It’s as if we’re saying we don’t expect any better from “those people”. Sure the police chief is a torturer, but he talks nicely to people while he shocks their testicles. Sure the gangsters blind children to make them more effective beggars, but they feed them! We can’t possibly expect any better from “those people”, because they don’t know any better. Count me out. The world of Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t get a morality exemption just because the people in it are on a different continent and Slumdog Millionaire is not a joyous celebration of anything, except a heinous culture of vicious, primitive, immoral people which can only be survived by a miraculous act of divine intervention. I don’t care if it does end with a Bollywood dance number, that’s not “upbeat and colorful”.

I am not one of those who scream “imperialism”, or who hates “firangi” approval “because” its a “firangi” one, or who always demands that only the “good” side of India be presented – that is not what I am writing about. There is so much wrong with the world, and particularly India, that films are always going to be made about the bad and the disgusting along with the good – they are facts of life, and there is nothing wrong in awarding them if they have any artistic merit; there is no way you can make an “upbeat” film about Hitler gassing the Jews – but you can make a good film on the subject. The problem however is that the bad has to be recognized as bad, not celebrated as good. You cannot point towards a hideously disfigured face and call it beautiful – that’s savagery, not aesthetics. As the writer who I linked to says-

The only time our hero Jamal is ever really happy in, he’s robbing people. Even the film’s so called happy ending is paper thin. Having watched him live a life in which each tiny success is brutally punished by a culture of bigotry, corruption, and abuse there’s every reason to believe that after our Jamal walks off camera he’ll immediately be stabbed and left for dead in a Mumbai alley.

And that’s what will probably happen. Real life hardly gives any reason to be optimistic about anything, and if the story of Millionaire is to be taken at face value, what reason does Jamal have of being optimistic? Schopenhauer, the profoundly pessimistic philosopher slams optimism – “[it] is a bitter mockery of men’s woes,” he once said. You don’t tell a man who’s been pushed around all his life to be optimistic.

A difference does exist between a “good” film and a “feel good” one – the first is your opinion about a film’s content, the second is your opinion about what the film does to you. That’s what needs to be understood before people “celebrate” Millionaire‘s Indian connection and success.

As for Rahman winning an award for the film’s score, does Millionaire top Dil Se? I don’t know. He’s done some incredible work over the last two decades – Roja, Rangeela and Bombay for starters – but as far as I am concerned, Dil Se is something special.

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Comments

  • you12  On January 12, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    What are you trying to say? Surely everything can’t be viewed with the same lens.

    I don’t think its fair to judge a fictional reality with a real one. And its unfair to pass a judgment on a film without seeing it.

    Artistic expression is devoid of any ideological considerations or “real life fictional life” balance. And it should be that way.

    Art and aesthetics do have a correlation but they don’t always go together. The paintings that are sold and admired don’t have an absolute visual appeal. You might even say they resemble a hideous face.

    Art and ideology can’t always be together. If they are than its an exception or a deliberate attempt, Art is random or specific abstraction and/or expression which can be often meaningless unlike ideology or point of view which is coherent and focused.

  • Aristotle The Geek  On January 12, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    “I don’t think its fair to judge a fictional reality with a real one. And its unfair to pass a judgment on a film without seeing it.”
    I am not necessarily commenting on the film, but people’s reaction to it. And its not about reality and fiction either, or whether art should imitate real life.

    “You might even say they resemble a hideous face.”
    I am not talking about resemblances, but about actual disfigurement. Imagine a face that is horribly disfigured because of an acid attack. Would you call it beautiful? I accept that just like morality, aesthetics too is somewhat subjective, but I would have issues with people who think of the face I mentioned as beautiful. Seen Shallow Hal?

    “Artistic expression is devoid of any ideological considerations or “real life fictional life” balance. And it should be that way…Art is random or specific abstraction and/or expression which can be often meaningless unlike ideology or point of view which is coherent and focused.”
    You are attacking a straw man. What art is, or should be, is an open question. Rand’s view, for example, was this – “art is the selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments”. And I would tend to agree with her more than the random stuff. I was sick to the stomach when I once read an artist say that his art is a kind of “vomit.” What a disgusting concept.

    I don’t have issues with what you portray on film, only what you say it is. A Satya, or a Dil Se, or a Maqbool, or an Omkara are tragedies and I have no doubt that similar real life stories exist. You sympathize with the characters, or you hate them – that’s how you react to the film. The films are good, but your reaction to them is not – “hey, what an uplifting film that is a celebration of xyz!” That’s what I wanted to say.

  • sirensongs  On February 8, 2009 at 12:30 am

    I never thought the film was ‘uplifting,’ and those who see it that way are seriously missing the point. It has a ‘happy ending’ but it is not a “happy” feel-good film. Nor was it meant to be.

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