Danny Boyle’s (Trainspotting) new film Slumdog Millionaire had me suspicious from the start, and I can’t say it won me over by the end. His protagonist Dev Patel (the cute Muslim kid from BBC America’s Skins) is either really good at mimicking the inexpressive mask that subalterns learn to wear in front of their betters, or, more likely, he is simply not yet up to carrying a lead role in a film. Luckily, the attention-deficited Boyle couldn’t be less interested in character development, not when a visual gross out, kinetic chase scene, or spectacular panorama of shambolic splendor can be turned to.

I am sure I was meant to escape into a thrilling yet ultimately redeeming tale of how the other half lives. Instead I found myself depressed by the constant reminders of how banal and unredemptive suffering and exclusion are, despite Slumdog‘s best efforts to endow them with Dickensian pluck.

My colleague Sukdhev Sandhu had a more favorable take on the film in his column in the Daily Telegraph:

Slumdog Millionaire strikes me as a hugely important film in contemporary cinema. It’s an advertisement for the dramatic potential of the non-Western city. Mumbai, Chennai, Shanghai, Lagos: they, not New York or Los Angeles, over-familiar and culturally declining cities both, are where any writers and directors should be heading today. They offer more energy, extremity, humanity – fillips to the imagination.

Sure, there are risks involved for those who elect to make that kind of creative migration. These days any film set in a poor or developing nation will attract scrutiny.

What we now call the Third World was patronised or ignored by moviemakers for much of the 20th century; it’s no bad thing if their successors are forced to think more deeply about what they’re doing.

Especially when, following the success of City of God, a cinematic sub-genre – let’s call it ghetto picturesque – has developed so that, in films like the (marvellous) Bourne Ultimatum, poor neighbourhoods full of veiled women, market stalls and bearded elders feature as little more than gritty wallpaper, edgy backdrops across which hurtle maverick agents and secret-service free runners.

I’ve heard it said that Slumdog Millionaire itself is patronising, that it doesn’t say enough about imperialism, that it prettifies suffering and poverty. To which I can only say: nonsense.

Boyle is not a political director, but his film is incalculably more radical than the glossy, blinged-out pictures that emerge every week from the studios of Mumbai. His screenwriter is Simon Beaufoy, best known for The Full Monty, also a portrait of economically ravaged underdogs trying to make a life for themselves.

Their collaboration here is a tricked-out, kinetic throwback to the crowd-pleasing, emotionally intense social dramas that India excelled at during the Fifties and Sixties, epic sagas in which young men, impelled by a hunger for justice and believing in a better future for their nation, fought against local gossips, corrupt moneylenders and predatory landlords.

Indian directors rarely make those movies these days; good on Boyle for trying to do so.

Not sure what I think about the gratuitous swipes at NYC and LA, but Sukdhev did get me thinking more about the necessarily messy nature of the popular, which by definition cannot ever match up to the exacting expectations of our political desires. I agree that we need more films about Mumbai and Lagos, and not just outraged documentaries, but, as Boyle says in the interview clip posted about the review, “entertainments.” If contemporary Bollywood is escapist melodrama than Boyle, he suggests, is Dickens: entertainment with an enduring edge.

But still, if the ghetto picturesque is shaping up to be to our century what Dickens’ novels were to the 19th, lets keep in mind that Dickens had to exist because of the realities of slavery, child labor, ruthless and unregulated capitalism, and unsanitary living conditions. His world was that of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and Friedrich Engels Conditions of the English Working Class, writers also dedicated to a social realism that sought not to redeem society, but indict and transform it.

When a younger version of Boyle’s protagonist emerges from a latrine covered in (fake-looking) shit, it’s not only a self-homage to the gross-out toilet scene from his now-classic Trainspotting. It’s also a return of a repressed nineteenth century social order, in the form of the monstrous “half devil/half child” who haunted the dreams of the colonial-modern and, it now seems, haunts our present global imaginary as well.

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