The Down Side to Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscar Sweep

We were sitting around with friends after Slumdog Millionaire win Best Picture when someone who hadn’t seen the film said that he couldn’t wait because he wanted to learn more about the slums of India. His words made us wince because a. how could we not, and b. we think (and maybe we’re wrong here) that there are plenty of Americans who are going to check out Danny Boyle’s fantasy flick for the same reason: a bit of cultural tourism.

But as we tried to explain to him, and we’re sure that Tunku Varadarajan — a professor at New York University Stern Business School and the author of an interesting rant in today’s Times — would agree, this Mumbai fairytale is in no way meant to mirror the reality of India. And the fact that Slumdog took home so many statues does nothing to change that, unless it ends up silencing the Indian outcry over the gross inaccuracies in the film. As Varadarajan wagers:

“Maybe it’s a result of 200 years of colonialism, but Indians are world champions at caring — really caring! — about what foreigners (more accurately, Westerners) think or say about them. They will live blithely with impressively foetid slums in their midst, thinking nothing of the juxtaposition of Victorian-era poverty and world-class, 21st-century living standards. But the national outrage stirred when a Western film-maker uses ‘slumdog’ in the title of his film is an incandescent sight to behold… And yet when that same film, with that same neo-imperialist title, is fêted by tuxedoed Americans at an awards ceremony watched across the globe, Indians burst with pride. Eight Oscars, yaah! Isn’t that a record? Isn’t A.R. Rahman the best composer in the world? Isn’t Bollywood bloody wonderful? And aren’t our slums a lesson in how to overcome adversity and cruelty?”

You only need to look at the ridiculously happy ending of this film to know that Danny Boyle — the same man who gave us a crawling dead baby in Trainspotting — never intended to create an accurate portrayal of Mumbai’s slums. That would have been a completely different movie. And one we’d wager wouldn’t have raked in nearly $100 million at the box office to date. But if India’s excitement over Slumdog‘s victory ultimately overshadows their former dissent, then a generation of kids (and man-children) could grow up thinking that all it takes to escape from poverty that’s more extreme than the bounds of their imaginative powers is a solid run on a game show. There’s a danger in that, right?

P.S. We just read that the film’s child stars are to be given “free homes” by the state government. So maybe we’re wrong. Danny Boyle is magic.