Tuesday, February 17, 2009

From where comes hope? 

I was reflecting on a new Economist article on the middle class today and thought to relate this to an article in the local paper on St. Cloud residents from India and their reaction to Slumdog Millionaire. One of the people interviewed in the Economist article is Surjit Bhalla, who is doing research in New Delhi on the emerging middle class there and has written a review, The American in Slumdog.
I have been somewhat surprised at all the hoopla surrounding this India-based film, in India. Too much poverty � what, know you not, there are middle class and rich Indians also? Why do people always revel in showing India in a bad light � by showing the exploitation within, by emphasizing its dark poverty? ...

The portrayal of poverty is no grounds for divorce from reality. If this had been the accepted wisdom, the world would have been denied de Sica�s The Bicycle Thief and our own Satyajit Ray�s Apu Trilogy. We should be embarrassed for even bringing up the idea of protesting the film, let alone discussing it in a juvenile fashion on TV. The bet is not on Slumdog to win because it glorifies the tragedy of poverty. No, Slumdog will win because it tells a quintessentially American story. And the appeal is enhanced by the Indian setting, and a Bollywood (may not love it but can�t leave it because it is so enjoyable) treatment.
I've not seen Ray's films, but The Bicycle Thief is a very dark movie of postwar Rome that hardly portrays Italy in a great light. The movie isn't about Italy. (I won't give the plot away, but you don't know the point of the movie until the climactic scene. If you haven't seen it, please do. If you must spoil it, you can get most of the point in Roger Ebert's review.)

Likewise, the slums of India are not the point of this movie, as Bhalla tells it:

My first article in journalism was written in the winter of 1980. It was entitled �In Defense of Attenborough�. Many Indians then were up in arms � how dare an Englishman, and not an Indian, make a film about the Father of the Nation? And why not, I argued � perhaps he will have a more detached perspective. Ditto in the case of Danny Boyle � he has made a better film on Indian slums, and universal hope, than most Indians could. The reason no Bollywood filmmaker could have made as good a film on �poverty� is because, well, Bollywood is not that interested in doing so. Befitting the upward mobility and aspirations in our society (shades of being American?), Bollywood is much more interested in luxury and fantasy and Sydney Harbour and the Swiss Alps than even a stylized version of the �real� India. One does not have to be poor, or live in a poor society, to make a film about hope despite poverty. One just has to be human � thankfully, none of the jingoistic and mis-guided critics have denied Boyle his abundant humanity.

The movie tells an American story, or is it Indian? Rags to riches, and the worth of an education. Both American and Indian children need to know the names of the Three Musketeers. Fighting the odds and coming out ahead. Being optimistic about pulling through rather than being burdened by the pessimism of reality. Aspiring to be middle class, dreaming of a better life. And often, making dreams happen. Only in Hollywood-Bollywood movies or only in America and India?

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Americans believed in themselves, and their power to change their destiny. Always, the most positive person in the room was the American � the most pessimistic the German. A bit like Boyle�s and Ray�s treatment of poverty � one sees hope and emergence, the other sees despair and unrelenting loss.

One of the Indians interviewed in the St. Cloud paper, a colleague of mine, says "As soon as they showed the slum in the movie, I said we should have known that the West has made this movie � that�s what a Westerner would show of India." No, what a Westerner shows of India is quintessentially American. It is a place that still has a relatively low Gini coefficient (much lower than China's) which nevertheless will see increasing inequality as their IT-led expansion, fueled by easy connectivity to the world, increases their middle class dramatically. There are, as the Economist article points out, two middle classes in the developing world. One can be middle class anywhere in the world; some of these 'global middle class' make up the faculty quoted in the article. A second group, a 'developing middle class', can be so in their country but not in the West. The protagonist in Slumdog has that dream, and has that education. He learns because he lives in a country where that modest dream can be made -- he can be a millionaire in his own land, even if he would seem poor in another's. By one Indian think tank's projections, half of the urban dwellers in India will be middle class by 2016. Their populations are swelling now, and for now they move into low-rent housing, where they dream. Bhalla concludes that the movie
...is about rooting for the underdog � a clich� but never a truer one. Look at the villains in the movie � they are not an example of thinly disguised racial profiling, but you and me. Heck, even the hero of the movie is a Muslim.

The movie succeeds because everything portrayed is plausible � not likely, but possible. It is a movie about the celebration of hope, about the reach being further than the grasp. How can you get more American than that � or more Indian?
(BTW, I have been wracking my brain trying to think of an Armenian movie to fit this theme, but haven't come up with one. Perhaps cinema in Armenia is just too small. Comment please if you think of one.)

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