Best Picture for Slumdog Millionaire?

Many have asked me about my feelings toward the Oscar-nominated Slumdog Millionaire. I’ve spent the past few days thinking about how to answer that question without sufficient cinematic knowledge and without falling prey to the typical biases associated with India. I woke up early today to try to put those thoughts into words, so here goes…

Even if the Academy had not selected Slumdog as a Best Picture nominee, the western world would still be buzzing about the snub of what is undoubtedly a brilliant and brave piece of entertainment. Everyone has seen it, so everyone knows – the colors, the sounds, the nonlinear rags-to-riches storyline set against an exotic backdrop. There is little question – especially among well-known film critics – that this movie presents the viewer with a deep and powerful escape.

What strikes me most, however, is that after seeing the movie, reading all the reviews, and suffering through Matt Lauer’s attempts to analyze the film on The Today Show, there is one simple and obvious element that has yet to be fully explored. While Slumdog is set in a country where the local conditions amplify the basic emotions that serve as the movie’s foundation, the movie is not a movie about India – as George Carlin would say, it just happens to be set there.

This tiny distinction has led to a good bit of misrepresentation which, in turn, has hoisted lofty and unrealistic expectations on an otherwise terrific flick. One could easily imagine the exact same cinematic formula staged in Brazil. Picture this: A young boy, growing up in Rio’s slums, loses his parents, is separated from his brother, and lifts himself out to explore his homeland and reconnect with his childhood love, complete with its own samba-infused score and kaleidoscope of greens, yellows, and blues that bounce off the silver screen. We could call it Favela Millionaire and we in the west would love it just the same.

But when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates a film for “Best Picture” and nine other awards, it transforms and elevates the entire discussion.

For the majority of loyal moviegoers who have never visited India and were reluctantly transported there via such films as The Temple of Doom, The Darjeeling Limited, and Patrick Swayze’s embarrassing City of Joy, Slumdog Millionaire has nothing to do with India yet simultaneously, now, and especially today, has become everything about India. No matter what a viewer thinks about India and its stereotypes, he or she cannot help but leave the theater with a sense that India, despite its troubles, is an extremely rich and textured place. Viewers get this feeling because the Slumdog directors successfully navigated physical and political hurdles to capture the elements of Bombay that most can only read about in novels like Maximum City. For that and that alone, Slumdog – win or lose – deserves all its accolades. (Footnote: City of God, set in Brazil, is quite an extraordinary movie.)

In nominating Slumdog, the Academy is signaling the importance it places on daring filmmaking, modest budgets, uplifting storylines presented during anxious times, and most critically, the importance of India to the future of the global motion picture business.

It is well-documented in leading culture magazines and even publications like The Wall Street Journal that India’s film industry, as everyone knows, is poised for continued success. They have the production infrastructure, the creative talent, and the musicians, engineers, and financiers. They have the landscapes, the histories, and the diversity. And, of course, they have hundreds of millions of viewers who, like in the west, crave movies to transport them to other places.

While the west watches late tonight, scores of red-eyed Bollywood aficionados scattered in London, Cape Town, and Dubai, and millions of fans concentrated in India, their hopes pinned on an underdog movie about an underdog will eagerly await the line, “And the winner is…”

And, when the winner is announced, no matter the outcome, it will be a victory both for the Academy and for Bollywood. The tiny backlash created by the movie in India has merit, to be sure, though as a friend recently pointed out, it’s not hard to rile up fans and create a protest in India. And, that’s a good thing. Consider the two scenarios. Perhaps Slumdog goes home as the winner tonight, and it accelerates an already fast-paced and commercial race to intertwine two huge movie markets and open the west to the future flow of products originating in Bollywood. On the other hand, Slumdog could lose out to another great film (Milk) or the other marginal ones, the debate about the importance of Bollywood will only intensify.

No matter the outcome, I hope, from today moving forward, the critics and businessfolk do not read too much into the movie beyond what we see on the screen and what we feel after the credits. Yes, it happens to be India, but from 10,000 feet, it really could have been shot in another developing country other than India, though it certainly benefits from it. (This was even the lead actor’s very first visit to India…ever.) With all the attention, awards, and criticisms to date, the expectations placed on Slumdog appear too big for its britches and risk turning an innocent love story into a vessel for something bigger that it may not be able to handle.

I’ve had mixed emotions about Slumdog Millionaire, perhaps because everyone around me can’t stop gushing about it. And, after watching the movie, seeing the competition, reading the reviews, talking about it during dinners and after at bars, and listening to the soundtrack over and over, and as I wake up today, February 22, and think about tonight, I cannot lie anymore – it’s a terrific movie, certainly not perfect, but probably the best movie this year, a stunning motion picture that helps us escape during anxious times.

And it just happens to be India. “The envelope please…”