Posted February 18, 2009

The money and the girl

Temple’s Priya Joshi explains why

Slumdog Millionaire, the new film from British director Danny Boyle which showcases a star-studded cast, continues its steady accumulation of movie awards — including a “best film” award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and 10 nominations for Oscars slated for this Sunday's ceremony.

And while the movie about a poor orphan in Mumbai who competes on a television quiz show has been scoring big at the box office, some in India are calling it an example of “slum tourism” or “poverty porn.”

According to Temple English professor Priya Joshi, however, Slumdog offers a message of globalization and the power of popular culture to spread new ideas.


Priya Joshi (Photo by Sipra Das)



“In India, members of the middle and upper classes, who want to think of themselves as sophisticated, global elites, were shocked by Slumdog's depiction of poverty, but it has not stopped them from flocking to the theaters,” said Joshi.

Slumdog has been a commercial success in India, with the film drawing capacity crowds to both the English and the Hindi versions. In the U.S., Slumdog's box office take is almost six times its cost, while a fellow Oscar contender, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, starring Brad Pitt, has yet to break even.

Joshi observes that the Indian responses to Slumdog fall into two categories: those who find the film depicts an Indian underbelly of violence and poverty they'd rather not expose to the West, and those who immediately get the film and see it as a metaphor for the times.

The Indian response to Slumdog, Joshi says, is not unlike the way some Italian-Americans reacted to “The Sopranos,” in which glamorization of the mobster, they claimed, obscured the community's many positive achievements. “Others immediately understood that the mobster was not an unambiguous hero but represented the immigrant’s romance — his dream of mastery — over an often hostile new country.”

According to Joshi, Slumdog Millionaire may best be compared to Cinema Paradiso. “In the same way that Cinema Paradiso paid homage to the transformative power of Hollywood movies of the 1950s, Slumdog testifies to the power of Bollywood's blockbusters from the 1970s, and it's no accident that the first question on the quiz show is about the 1973 hit Zanzeer.”

"After the Oscars this Sunday, some of the blogosphere's more petulant postings might subside," Joshi predicts, "and we might begin to have a sensible conversation about this remarkable film. In many ways, its real achievement is its homage to Indian popular culture and the millions that make it 'popular.'"

Throughout the film, Slumdog makes numerous, deeply-layered references to Bollywood — all the way to the happy-ending which is typical of a Bollywood movie, said Joshi. “It is a happy ending in the tradition of Victorian melodrama — and of Warner Brothers' films of the 1940s — one that is so precious because of how easily that happy ending might equally have been thwarted.”

The most interesting question for Joshi, however, might be why a film filled with maiming, murder and the torture of children, not to mention obscure references to a foreign film industry, has won the hearts of Americans?

“I guess the movie has resonated with an American audience in this time of economic uncertainty because it captures, and assuages, a vulnerability we all feel,” said Joshi. "We might not all become quiz show millionaires, but at least we can feel good watching someone else get the moolah and the girl."

Joshi is the prizewinning author of In Another Country: Colonialism, Culture, and the English Novel in India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003) and a forthcoming book, Crime and Punishment: Nationalism and Public Fantasy in Bollywood Cinema, that examines the role of popular Hindi film in the construction of the idea of "India." She is an associate professor in the English Department in the College of Liberal Arts.