Sunday, February 22, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

The Oscars are tonight. I went to see Slumdog Millionaire yesterday. And I loved it.

27 years ago I traveled alone in India for three months, writing a speculative freelance article on India’s film industry. In 1981 almost no one in the West knew anything about Bollywood. I was also going to India as many 25-year-olds about to get an MBA might do, in terror of growing up and looking for what I mistakenly thought would be my last adventure. I took the train from what was then Bombay, to Rajasthan, New Delhi, Agra and the Taj Majal, Bhopal, the temples of Khajuraho, the oldest Buddhist stupa in the country in Sanchi, what was then Madras, Trivandrum, back to what was then Madras, Bhubaneshwar, what was then Calcutta, then through Bihar, where I saw a woman carrying a dwarf child on her back as she vomited onto the train tracks, to Darjeeling, a side trip to Nepal (which required an airplane), down to what was already Varanasi, up to Swami Muktananda’s ashram, back to Bombay, and home. The red and pink lines above mark my trip. But that’s another story.

I recognized India in Slumdog, even all these years later. I loved the movie despite its complete lack of irony. I thought it was art. It felt like art. I felt exalted when I walked out onto the street, like I now knew something I hadn't know before, that I couldn't articulate.

I don’t know that we could make the same movie in America these days. Direct narrative disappoints us, unless a lot of explosives are detonated in the process, or we can define it a priori as a chick flick, a date movie. Only commercial, consumable movies get the direct plot and the high production values. Our art movies need a plotline with a twist, the boy is actually a girl, the girl was molested by her stepfather, or they need some unusual visual statement, everything is black or takes place in one room. We need something that surprises us, that adds sweet to sour, or sour to sweet. We are a little bored by boy meets girl, boy loves girl, girl loves boy, everyone dances. Why? Because the background for our stories is strip malls where all the signage has to match? Because despite the problems in America so many live in relative prosperity and as a result we need more unusual distress in the plotline? I don’t know, and the answer requires a grander capability for generalization than I have got.

India on its own plays a role in Slumdog. The editing and cinematography brought it all back to me. I felt surprise. I suppose you could say, and someone probably has, that India is the real filmi star here, that India itself provides sufficient drama, grotesquerie, and humor. The movie’s story can unfold directly, all the while giving us the >>sense of rising above previously known meaning<< (I'd use one word but there isn't one that I know of) that in Western movies requires irony.

Or something like that.



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