I wanna watch this!

Hollywood for ugly people: awards season in Washington

Mon, 01/12/2009 – 6:46pm

The big winner at last night’s Golden Globes, Slumdog Millionaire, succeeds at levels that almost certainly never entered into the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s calculus when they voted awards for the film, its director, its screenplay and its score. They were almost certainly most focused on the extraordinarily compelling stories of its main characters, the quality of the film-making, the deft structure, acting, directing, the usual stuff of movie-making. But the film captures the life and the spirit of Mumbai and of much of India, depicts a world alien to most in America who will see it, and at the same time both captures and, through its own success worldwide, illustrates the transformation not just of its of its leading character, Jamal, but of his ever-present co-star, modern India itself.

Juxtaposing the brutal poverty of Mumbai’s slums with the glitter and promise of a global television phenomenon like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, the film offers a kind of energizing fugal counterpoint that is full of hope and at the same time condemnation of the gaps that divide the poorest from the globalizing world. Jamal, like all picaresque heroes, becomes our guide, introducing us first to the crushing poverty of the world into which he was born and then to the steps he takes up the path he and his brother follow in search first of survival and later of more rewarding lives. It is almost inevitable that such an evocation of contemporary India must lead him through a job in a call center…just as his ultimate deliverance through his performance on the game show places him in the most global setting possible because it is also the most culturally denuded setting possible. The world is never flatter (which is to say more two dimensional) than it is on an international game-show hit. His use of a cell phone as a lifeline in the game echoes the role that modern technology is playing in transforming the world of even the poorest. The scene in which he and his brother stand atop sky scrapers that overlook what once was the slum from which they came also speaks to the stunning degree of the changes sweeping their country, even as the brother’s enrichment as a cog in a gangster’s empire comments on the mixed bag that rapid prosperity brings with it. (As the recent scandal at Satyam also illustrates.)

But beyond the effectiveness of the structure in which each chapter of his life is linked to a question he faces on “Millionaire,” beyond the way the story provides a window into many of the themes central to an Indian transformation that echoes Jamal’s, what is most potent and ultimately transcendent about the movie are the scenes of Jamal, his brother Salim and Jamal’s life-long love Latika as children facing brutality and the very worst hands fate can deal us with extraordinary hope, with laughter, and with inextinguishable vitality. They should despair. But they always believe there is something more. It’s this spirit, which I have seen in every struggling corner of the planet and which I feel in particular animates all of India that is so indelible and telling. That anyone should ever suffer as so many children do — and roughly 40,000 die every day of preventable causes worldwide — is inexcusable but that it does not crush them and still these great countries are finding a path to elevate themselves is the story and the great hope of the 21st century. (And their fate is our greatest responsibility.)

Hollywood for ugly people: awards season in Washington | David Rothkopf.