Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Can I Get a "Jai Ho"?

Was anyone else infuriated by this?

In general, this past week's Academy Awards coverage of the Indians involved in Slumdog Millionaire was belittling at some points and downright exploitative at others. 

The film itself didn't seem that way to me, thanks mostly to Danny Boyle's direction. It mined the melodrama and conventions of Bollywood cinema, but it always did it honestly, and the performances--of the children especially--never seemed contrived. The difference was that the Indians in Slumdog Millionaire were the subjects while its director was an outsider, whereas the real-life Indians were an exaggerated other.

I saw a ticker on Saturday morning that proclaimed "Slumdog Children Being Sent to America for Academy Awards," and it seemed portentous of this sort of thing. "Being sent" is already making them an object, as if they're a box of Slap-Chops or something; but the notion that this was a gift to them, rather than something they deserved, was the more insulting point. They were an integral part of the front-runner for Best Picture. Would there have been a ticker if the Weinstein Company had shipped Ralph Fiennes to sit next to the rest of the cast of The Reader? Would it have been so weird to see Michael Sheen sitting with Ron Howard? Probably not, but we had to hear repeatedly how generous it was of the Academy/Fox Searchlight to bring those brownies to the show.

Isn't it presumptuous in the first place to believe that there's nowhere a ten-year-old Indian boy would rather be than sitting down for three hours at the Kodak Theater in a tuxedo? Isn't that part of our best-of-all-possible-cultures thinking? Who is really being served here? These children or our idea that we need to save someone from a far-off slum, if only for one night?

Classic. There's only one TV for the whole village. Thanks major news outlets.

During the E! red carpet show, there was a "dance like Slumdog" segment. Ryan Seacrest, a bit after the above clip ends, condescendingly complimented one of these tweens on her English after not even attempting her "weird" Indian name.* Presenters mispronounced composer A.R. Rahman's name three times, and this is a guy who has sold 200 million albums worldwide. We're lucky he knew Danny Boyle's name.

I don't mean to blow this out of proportion. Everyone likes a free trip, and all the Indian guests seemed genuinely happy to be here. (And it's not as if I don't objectify.) However, tokenism is pervasive. It upsets me that whenever a cultural event like this movie exposes the average American to a different way of life, the power of that understanding is rendered meaningless. 

* You can't completely blame Seacrest. Those shows are fast and furious, and there's no telling what information his producers gave him beforehand. But something tells me if there was enough preparation to have all the kids' names on a card, there was enough preparation for someone to say, "Hey, do you need help with these pronunciations?" Holding the card up to the screen is pretty xenophobic.


MT said...

I can't help but feel like a "theory kid" but part of this critique has been a problem with my reception of the movie. While I don't doubt Danny Boyle's artistry, there's a sense that its positive reception at the awards is a function of a self-serving interest of the academy. It's as though their acknowledgment should do something in particular for the recognition of problems happening in India and as though their approval serves to separate this positive looking Muslim world from the other, negative Muslim world that has appeared in political discourse.
Of course, my own response is a bit jaded towards what, at the end of the day, is probably a good film, but I'm hard pressed to believe any film is this good. Instead, I'm left questioning motives and wondering what sort of poor conscience saving tactics are at play. Again, a product of my cynicism.

The King Of New Orleans said...

i definately enjoyed the post chris....i also may have lifted the photo on my most recent post...and maybe shown some cultural insensitivity while poking fun at the snuggie...and you're right obama definately appears to be pacing on that shoe...maybe we should all try to get our own air force ones with out likenesses pacing on them...if only nikeid allowed you to ad images...which reminds me of a show i recently designed on there but am debating if its worth dropping a buck sixty on...