The Slumdog Millionaire and His Damsel in Distress

My come-hither eyes are asking for help.

My come-hither eyes are asking for help.

Indira had asked me to do an Oscar prediction round-up, but I had only seen one of the movies featuring a nominated-best actress (that being the depressing Frozen River) and I hadn’t seen Frost/Nixon, Benjamin Button, or The Reader. I really fell down on the job this year…or maybe I was just watching awesome movies that weren’t nominated for Oscars, like Gran Torino, Cadillac Records, and Synechdoche, New York.

But I did see Slumdog Millionaire. Certainly I found its fairy-tale qualities enchanting, its cinematography breathtaking and its heart big and bursting, but I also found it naive (regardless of Boyle’s & Tandan’s stylistic intentions) and–at risk of sounding like an uptight feminist–offensive to the capacities of women.

Like all fairy tales, there is a woman (Latika, played at her oldest stage by the gorgeous Freida Pinto) who must be rescued from some evil villain. As a young girl, Latika first appears melancoly but plucky; in her adolescence she is resigned but wise and world-weary as a brothel-worker, and as her full-grown self she is helpless and apparently lacking in slumdog street smarts.

But perhaps I am just playing my role as the Western feminist, in which I underestimate the limited social mobility for a woman like Latika in Mumbai society. Maybe she really doesn’t have many options available, least of all an option to be brave and self-sufficient, and it would be foolish and insensitive to insist that she inherit these traits.

But the whole film is one fantastical and serendipitous event after another; and if Jamal can overcome his lowliness, why can’t Latika? Argh.

The movie presents three different models for getting out of slums.

Model A: Be Cunning and Display Disregard for Morality

Salim is an archetype Americans recognize; he follows the gangsta narrative of get out the ‘hood, get money, get paid.  Doesn’t matter what/who gets in the way.

Model B: Pull Yourself Up By the Bootstraps

I recall a Colbert Report episode in which Stephen is dictating a list of gifts he will provide for the young people of today. He says he will provide boot straps, by which the recipient will pull themselves up. I attempt to approximate his strange and hilarious syntax. In any case, poor Jamal is doomed to the old Protestant archetype of work, work, work to earn.

Model C: Be Beautiful and Hopefully Someone Rich Will Marry You

The last model clearly requires the least agency. Latika suffers her fair share under the tyranny of her gangster/pimp/ring-leader crime boss. And I know it would be easier to get killed than it would be to run away from her cruel husband. But still… it is disappointing that in a film so rich in the unreal that Latika falls deeper and deeper into her fate without pulling very hard in the opposite direction. If the movie is all about the dichotomy of “slumdog” vs. “millionaire,” she is doomed to slumdoghood, while her compadres reached for a milli. Why is this?

In the end though, I am glad this movie won Best Picture. It has started an interesting debate about poverty, realism, and Danny Boyle, and also sheds a little light on one of the biggest slums in the world.

But I stand firm that the movie’s push-pull dynamic–the “slumdog” mode vs. the “millionaire” mode–does not apply very well to Latika. Even Salim, arguably the film’s biggest villain due to his Fall from good to evil, eventually redeems himself through an act of good will (that is, stalling for time and allowing Latika to escape). Other characters are pretty statically evil or statically good. It’s a good thing that the statically-good Jamal saved Latika, or she might still be making sandwiches for her stupid husband.

-by Anna


4 responses to “The Slumdog Millionaire and His Damsel in Distress

  1. I couldn’t agree more! I felt that much of the hysteria over the movie was unfounded. Yeah, it’s good but not that good. It was disappointing that Latika’s character was so underdeveloped while Jamal was portrayed as more nuanced and complex, a rarity for Muslim men these days. Right in the beginning when young Latika needs to be “saved” from the rain after the riots to the conflict she causes between the two brothers, it really does seem that the writers were advancing the stereotypes about women, particularly Indian women.

    That being said, I am glad that Freida Pinto is being embraced from Hollywood. For too long, Bollywood has shunned women who are “dusky,” i.e. dark and it’s wonderful that a woman who actually looks Indian is receiving recognition. Not that I have anything against fair skinned actresses like Aishwariya Rai!

  2. Thanks for the response Indira! I was anxious to know what you thought of the film. Yes, I think it is great and pretty unusual for the academy to give an Oscar to a technically “foreign” film, much less one led by an ensemble cast of previously unheard of Indian actors. (Apparently Danny Boyle didn’t want anyone too good looking for the part of Jamal and resisted picking any familiar Bollywood faces!) But I think in the end, this movie washed over the torture scenes with Barack-Obama style cure-all hope. Which is of course an artistic choice… I wouldn’t suggest that all movies about India or poverty have to be sad and glum, but I think the film spoke to all our naive hopes and dreams about the mysterious world of slums. Come on, poor folk, just work hard and then you’ll win a million dollars! Or 20,000 rupees! No, really!

  3. What did you think of Grand Torino?

  4. I thought Gran Torino was an excellent, if humble movie about race relations and the old neighborhoods of blue collar America. I thought Clint Eastwood was a superb old racist bastard with a heart of gold. I have a pop culture blog and I wrote a whole post about Gran Torino vigilantism v. Dirty Harry vigilantism in this link right here, please read if you’re interested, Mike!

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