Desi feminists have to talk about Slumdog Millionaire. How can we let the movie go without some critical analysis, or what some might call overanalyzing. Well, a little overanalyzing never hurt anyone.

So here goes…I saw a little ad for the movie in one of those sidebars that pop up while you’re web surfing. At first I thought it was a fluke, and then I thought it was a Bollywood flick that had enough money to advertise itself in web ads. Then I read a review for it on PlanetBollywood, and though the reviewer gave the movie a 10/10, I thought the movie sounded cheezy and didn’t give much thought. Well, then the movie one an Oscar, and I finally watched it. I liked it. It was entertaining. But did I think it was Oscar-worthy? No. After reading and pondering over another analysis by Samhita on Feministing, I gathered my own thoughts.

My reaction to this movie was the same one as I had watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding, reading Huckleberry Finn, and reading Lajja by Bangladeshi feminist author Taslima Nasrin – I couldn’t believe the hoop-la over each one. At a Feminist Theory class in college, we actually discussed on why this might be the case. These works are just superficial enough to broach complicated topics and reach to a wide audience. I got bent out of shape while writing a paper on My Big Fat Greek Wedding, because every time I wrote about the problematic stereotypes and oversimplifications of the movie, I found myself coming up with contradicting explanations. There are so many cliched things about Slumdog Millionaire – honest male protagonist, weak and innocent heroine, fantastical yet remotely plausible plot, and of course, love. There were also glitches in the movie that I don’t think fit the Oscar model – like when Jamal speaks in English with American tourists at the Taj Mahal. When Indians are speaking to each other in English (in the movie), you can think that in real life they’d be talking in Hindi, but when it’s Jamal with tourists, how’d they really be communicating in the real world? Yet as I think about the problems in the movie, I can also think of other explanations. For example Latika was such a weakling in the movie that it perpetuated the stereotype of women, and specifically Indian women, yet there are young women in both India and America who are trapped in situations and need help to get out. And while the story of undying love is sappy, cheezy, and mythical, it was refreshing to see a cute love story when there have been so many cynical, frat boy, stupid or sleazy movies like Knocked Up, 40 Year Old Virgin, He’s Just not that into You, The Ugly Truth, Miss March, Sex Drive, and Seth Rogen movies in general. 

There have been other related criticisms on Feministing that I won’t repeat here. Those include not giving enough credit to the Co-Director who is an Indian woman, modifying Latika’s role from a powerful one in the book to a helpless one in the movie, how having a British Co-Director and Production gave the movie privilege to be publicized, etc. Those are valid criticisms because there have been other Indian or Indian themed movies in the past like Lagaan, Water, and The Namesake that haven’t been nearly as popular, let alone win an Oscar, even in the foreign film category. The one that came close to being popular among Americans was Devdas and that’s another cliched, stereotypical and plain annoying adaptation of a much more complicated book. Now what does that say about mainstream American and Indian audiences?

I think Slumdog Millionaire was created for a mainstream American audience. I know, I know, a lot of Indians loved the movie and are celebrating the eight Oscars. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t created to appeal to mass America, with the unusual backdrop of Indian slums which makes it kind of Oscarish. I think there were other Oscar worthy movies for this year. For me, Slumdog joins the list of interesting, enjoyable, entertaining but not critical stuff like Sex and the City. They are necessary, even to feminist discussions.

Now I’m going to drink to A. R. Rahman’s Oscar win. The musician deserved it. – vidyarthi