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Rethinking post-colonial representation after Slumdog Millionaire

by Atticus Narain
9 Mar 2009 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Sound bites: poverty porn, slum tourism, imperialist guilt flick, post-colonial inequalities continued, Bombay’s underbelly revealed- revelled, brilliant, feel good movie, accurate portrayal, gross misrepresentation, a visual Lonely Planet guide to Mumbai, an (anti-)Indian movie, Bollywood mania. On television Boyle takes questions from enthusiastic BrAsians; in The Guardian Rushdie laments the “impossibility on impossibility”; and angry Amitabh Bachchan writes back – sounds jealous; my own contribution would be Angelina Jolie and Madonna tussling at the Oscars over adopting the movie’s child actors.

The American and British film industries’ acclamation of Slumdog Millionaire has raised much media debate. Issues of authenticity, cultural ownership,‘burden of representation’, the nationality of its director, its content and stylistic aesthetics, and Eurocentric and/or re-Orientalist visions, have created a vast contact zone for analyzing cinema, identity, and nationalism. None of this is new of course – contention of where Kurosawa and Ray belong continues; Spike Lee’s criticism of Quentin Tarantino’s use of Afro-American linguistics replays these debates – albeit with different histories of race, empire and exploitation. Using child actors as allegories of post-colonial development is characteristic of new national cinemas. This is brilliantly done in Amir Naderi’s The Runner; Salam Bombay is a little geographically closer, and numerous Indian socials of the fifties and sixties deployed children as central to narrative development and critique.

Slumdog Millionaire does not confirm to the contexts of such debates usually associated with World – Third – Alternative – cinemas, certainly not in the political sense that these cinemas are often discussed. Every now and again a film’s popularity transcends the categories accorded them and is propelled to a much higher and holy accolade. Slumdog Millionaire is City of Joy for the twenty-first century, informed by an anthropological attempt at readdressing inequalities of representation by “giving” the camera to the Other and erasing the need for white protagonists – well almost. If Boyle’s ethnicity was different would all this discussion be taking place? What happened to Gurinder Chadha’s aesthetic and agenda? Forced to succumb to funding desires of reproducing the East for the West- Bride and Prejudice- or producing minority narratives that tick every possible identity ‘clash’? Gentle, unassuming, had never even been to India prior to filming, Boyle does it better!

As I watched Boyle interviewed in front of what was labelled ‘an audience who know’, comprised of BrAsians, it highlighted the shifting boundaries between people and media. Diverse media networks, growing South Asian diasporic voices, and flows of cultural and economic capital reconfigure the boundaries that make initial critiques of ethnocentricity problematic. This is not to suggest that this BrAsian audience legitimates the film, that would be absurd, for South Asians are highly conservative too and engage in their very own visual literacy of Indian nostalgia. But, in the current context of terrorism, demonization of Islam and the associated face of brownness, does this present something new? Does Slumdog Millionaire reshape Mumbai’s public consciousness of a city under siege by inadvertently providing us with this feel good movie? In these global times of recession, present class struggle in Mumbai, compassionately and empathically, to evoke the humanity of us all? Or does this presentation of Brown skins offer alternatives of their usual association with terror for North American and British audience – do they differentiate? A stretch perhaps. What this enables is a continuation of the euphoria of Indianness and Asian cool of 2002 that took mainstream Britain by storm but on a much larger scale. Who knows this Slum’s Eye view may cause Bollywood to readdress its fascination with elite power, consumerism and diasporic life in the West?

Slumdog Millionaire converges competing histories of cultural and economic capital and flirts with two tropes pivotal to Bollywood – love and song-dance sequences. Slumdog Millionaire’s one song concludes the narrative of love as well as, rolling the credits. Perhaps indicating the limits of Bollywood’s global appeal beyond the South Asian Indian diaspora. What the film does do is participate in and expand the growing circuits of Indian media to reconfigure economic and geo-political boundaries of ‘Bollyworlds’ cultural imperialism. The production team behind this Slumdog have a firm understanding of the conventions of Bollywood.

Look at the clues: love is brimming with chance encounters, some missed others embraced, to drive the plot through numerous adversities, (which mainstream cinema does not place love so centrally?) The marketing of the film hung on teasing us with the anticipation of a song-dance sequence – that most Indian of characteristics that displays vibrancy through colour and gyrating bodies. Slumdog Millionaire’s one song perhaps indicates the limits of Bollywood’s formula for its cross-over appeal. Other traits are, the powerful bonds of kinship, honour and duty presented between the brothers, one good one bad, who jump from their train in Mumbai and fall off as adults in Agra – classic Indian cinema – through which both learn English – the distance between Mumbai and Agra is sufficient mileage to do that.

These references reverse the assumed derogatory analogy of Bollywood’s borrowings of Hollywood. In fact it begins the work of exporting the Indian spectator for a non-Indian audience and charts the beginning of inserting Indian localised ways of seeing. An Indian way of seeing is contentious territory, but the subtle weaving of Indian cinema strategies are telling signs of a larger space to imagine non-Asians engaging in the world of the Browns, with a Bollywood twist. To champion this thoroughly requires ethnographic research of whites in white spaces – an area left seriously wanting. Reflecting the difficulties of studying up and relations of power? Or such audience research is monopolised by analyses of audience relations with Bollywood, Nollywood, Tollywood etc. that carve out neatly fitting social and cultural frameworks which fit to an already homogeneous group where cinema is inserted into their lives. This ethnic profiling of audiences leaves the politics of audience and whiteness untouched, reiterating the normality of whiteness and the assumed impact of Hollywood as an obliterating machine, reaffirmed by textual film readings of its representational strategies that assumes its gaze of empire.

Soon full Hindi dialogues, numerous songs, and vast inconsistencies in plots, time frames and locations will become the staple diet of North American and British audiences. Providing an alternative to the empowering dominance of Euro-American cinematic imperialism by situating Indian cinema’s extensive history and its diasporic importance alongside these geo-political heavy weights.

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Post Doc. Fellow, Department of South Asia, SOAS, University of London
All posts by: Atticus Narain | Email | Website

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