First, I haven’t seen Slumdog Millionaire, though I want to. That said..
I woke up this morning unsettled by last night’s Academy Awards ceremony. It’s always bothered me that a storytelling medium gives lip service to the people who actually write the stories, and that it spends vast fortunes to tell these stories. It calls itself entertainment but it is an industry, it employs a vast number of people and produces a product that occasionally fleeting and ephemeral. It is an industry that talks openly about its magic, and like a magician performs slight-of-hand to prevent the audience from thinking about the larger issues.
Here’s what’s bothering me this morning after: If Slumdog Millionaire had been produced and directed by an Indian national, if it had been funded primarily outside of Hollywood, would we be seeing newspaper headlines about its awards today?
The Indian film industry has been producing movies for quite some time, and not just Bollywood product but Oscar-quality films at least since the 1950’s with the work of Satyajit Ray. I’m not going to pretend to know more than I do, but I have seen my share of foreign cinema co-opted by Hollywood that, in turn, pats itself on the back for its forward-thinking inclusion of other cultures. It doesn’t often do so in the Best Picture category though because films have to be primarily produced through an American studio to be nominated, so often this self-congratulatory affair takes place in the Best Foreign Film category where every other country in the world gets to put forth a single film to represent them that year, and from that mush pot the Academy chooses five films to duke it out for attention. At last count there were somewhere in the neighborhood of 190 countries in the world besides the United States, some with film industries of their own.
So I guess with odds like that I shouldn’t really be bothered that a film set in India, with a British director and another Brit adapting the screenplay from a book by an Indian author, should win hat is typically considered an American award. The Academy Awards go out of their way to honor the “best” in film, and yet like the World Series of baseball, their definition of “best” rarely extends beyond its continental boundaries.
Are we really to believe that this is the best film of its kind, about India? Is this truly the best film produced in the previous year over all others? Or is this the best film about India that is commercial enough for an American filmgoing audience to accept? Is this about the uniqueness of the foreign, about a moviegoing nation full of people who can’t remember the last film they saw set in India (if ever) that didn’t feature known British actors in key roles? Is this award not really about people patting themselves on the back for being so inclusive of other cultures that they are blind to everything else that culture may have to offer cinematically?
Years ago when I was a film reviewer I saw a film at a festival set in Iran, a simple love story about a local boy and girl who quietly fall in love while on the set of a movie where their characters are allowed to speak for them in ways they cannot. It was a great film, a simple story well (and cleverly) told, and I was happy to see an American company (Miramax) was it’s distributor. But it was never released. The story I heard later was that the film rights were purchased to be refilmed as an American romantic comedy. And thus, Through the Olive Trees languishes in obscurity, and our knowledge of Iran is limited only to those news reports we get from the BBC and NPR and, when it serves their purposes, American News media. The film isn’t even available on DVD. And then there’s Gabbeh, another Iranian love story, set in the mountains among goat herds and carpet makers. This film got some limited release but still isn’t available on DVD as well. Can it really be that there’s no interest in Iranian films, or is it there’s no interest in Iranian films that don’t fit an agenda or our preconceived notion of Iran? Is it harder for Hollywood to sell a love story from Iran because there aren’t any terrorists or nuclear arms or weapons of any kind to be found?
Likewise, is it easier to sell a film about the Dickensian love story from the slums of Mumbai because that is what an American audience will expect? Is Slumdog Millionaire the best film to come out of India this past year or just the only one American audiences would tolerate because it as marketed to their expectations after some good reviews following a few film festivals? Was it really the Best Picture made in 2008?
I used to have a mantra in my film reviewer days: see everything and judge for yourself. Basically, never trust a critic or a reviewers word, but more importantly, see it all and go beyond the emotional first impression. I’m still planning to see Slumdog Millionaire, but it’s going to have to compete in my mind with all the Indian, India-based, and Indian-directed films I’ve ever seen. We’ll see if it holds up as award-worthy and hoopla-deserving then.