Slum­ming it

Finweek English Edition - - Openers -

The film is a fron­trun­ner for Os­car glory and it would be a shame if it loses out to the paint-by-num­bers Os­car bait that’s The Cu­ri­ous Case of Ben­jamin But­ton and the other medi­ocre fare on of­fer. I ex­clude the ex­cel­lent The Wrestler – a film im­bued with the fin de siè­cle mood grip­ping much of the West. Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire, to be re­leased in SA at the beginning of March, fol­lows the young years of a Mum­bai or­phan – from his wretched ex­is­tence in the slums of In­dia’s fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal and the cen­tre of the movie in­dus­try to his ap­pear­ance on the In­dian ver­sion of the tele­vi­sion quiz show Who Wants to be a Mil­lion­aire? Along the way he’s con­fronted with a long line of cor­rupt gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, gets caught up in a mur­der­ous re­li­gious riot and is IF IT HASN’T HAP­PENED AL­READY, the nick­name “slum­dog mil­lion­aire” is set to be­come part of the pop­u­lar lex­i­con. Call­ing some­one a slum­dog mil­lion­aire works well as a com­pli­ment when you’re re­fer­ring to some­one who has pulled him­self up by his boot­straps to over­come great dis­ad­van­tage and make good. (South Africa is lit­tered with ex­am­ples – and not just in the rul­ing party, the hip-hop and Afrikaans mu­sic busi­ness.)

The new film of the same ti­tle from di­rec­tor Danny Boyle ( Trainspot­ting, The Beach) – in­evitably called the “feel-good movie of the decade” – is firmly in the rags to riches fairy­tale vein. Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire won’t be the first film this year to be mar­keted that way, be sure of it. Without feel-good bud­gets, feel-good in­ter­est rates, feel-good stock mar­kets, etc, the movie busi­ness has got a lock on feel-good any­thing. It doesn’t come as much of a sur­prise that Hol­ly­wood and Bol­ly­wood are do­ing bet­ter than a year ago: it re­mains the cheapest form of es­capism as long as you don’t buy the pop­corn or the wa­tery Coke. en­slaved by cal­lous crim­i­nals. Even the TV show host is a ve­nal mon­ster.

How do you square that with the feel-good fac­tor? Not eas­ily, and Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire isn’t without its crit­ics. The glib, re­lent­lessly up­beat tone of the film amid all the squalor and de­spair does be­come grat­ing, al­though I won’t call it poverty porn as some have done. Any­one who has ever vis­ited Mum­bai would re­alise the por­trayal of the con­di­tion the vast ma­jor­ity of its in­hab­i­tants live un­der is ac­cu­rate. Per­haps Vikas Swarup, long-time In­dian deputy High Com­mis­sioner to SA and au­thor of the book on which the film is based, could bring Alexan­dra to life in the same way as he did Mum­bai. It would come closer to re­al­ity than our only Os­car win­ner – Tsotsi – ever did.

The cur­rent global eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion (I’ve run out of ways of de­scrib­ing the cur­rent fi­nan­cial state of af­fairs: per­haps “eco­nomic death spi­ral”, as one US co­me­dian put it, is more ap­pro­pri­ate) has sup­plied Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire with added res­o­nance.

The pa­rade of the once-pow­er­ful, well­con­nected Davos men called to task for their fi­nan­cial fail­ures con­tin­ues. The pub­lic hu­mil­i­a­tion of the bosses of the big banks in Bri­tain last week fol­low­ing their mea culpa, of sorts, were fairly tame com­pared to the treat­ment the in­vest­ment bankers in the United States got for award­ing bonuses, lav­ishly re­fur­bish­ing offices and go­ing on jun­kets even as Wall Street was burn­ing. Those lin­ing up for Barack Obama’s lat­est tril­lion-dol­lar pack­age will face even harsher grilling.

The film’s com­mer­cial and crit­i­cal suc­cess is prob­a­bly to be ex­pected. The mil­lion­aire slum­dogs who oc­cu­pied the seem­ingly in­de­struc­tible world of high fi­nance and pol­i­tics are the out­casts in the new or­der. Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire is pure wish ful­fil­ment, but the feel-good fac­tor is as high as see­ing those who squan­dered the world’s riches be­ing brought to heel.

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