I saw the much-acclaimed film Slumdog Millionaire today — at a surprisingly well-attended matinee (Carousel really needs to move this film out of their basement suite of shoeboxes). For those who haven’t heard the buzz on the film, it’s about a desperately poor Muslim boy who has become a contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (an Indian TV program in real life, by the way) and amazingly knows the answers to all the difficult questions. Although I didn’t find it Best Picture material, it was an enjoyable way to spend a couple hours and would recommend it.
I think the enthusiasm for this film among American critics isn’t so much for its plot, which is a fairly simple rags-to-riches fairy tale, but for its setting. Modern India is an amazing, vivid place full of contradictions: extreme poverty next door to glittering high-rises… religious violence in the world’s biggest democracy… dozens of languages and yet everyone appears to speak English as a single lingua franca. More American than the real America — or at least, a place where everything is on the table in a way that can’t be spoken of here. In India, no one pretends there aren’t class distinctions. In America, if class distinctions are admitted at all, it’s only spoken of in the context of an allegedly large middle class versus “corporate robber barons.” (It’s easier to fold class into the umbrella of racism, which blunts class issues by changing the subject.) In India, poverty is in-your-face. In America, no one ever talks about the poor — unless some also-ran for president thinks it would make a nice touch to a stump speech. In India, celebrities get pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want; in America, they’re “just like you and me.” Supposedly.
In Slumdog Millionaire the audience has a hero to root for, even if there aren’t any really hissable villains. That’s because the screenplay makes the hero particularly likable against a backdrop of injustice and corruption, and if India has vibrant appeal, it’s because most of us don’t have to wash our clothes in filthy puddles. But it makes you wonder what’s been lost in an American society where everyone is officially more or less “doing fine” (because there are no poor people, just a middle class that hasn’t gotten all it’s entitled to). A country where there are no heroes, only successes.