Slumdog Redux

Feb. 9, 2009

I finally got around to seeing “Slumdog Millionaire.” Although I enjoyed the movie and found many aspects of it fascinating, I’m afraid I’m going to have to register one of the very few dissenting opinions about it being a great piece of cinema.

In particular, I’m distressed at the premise of one of the film’s most basic narrative foundational elements: the police beating of the protagonist. This is not a political objection, I should hasten to say. It’s simply a question of strained credibility that diminishes the whole movie for me.

Not being familiar with Indian society, I tried looking around for some discussion that might make the brutal police beatings credible — after all, the boy, Jamar, is literally a culture hero to practically every single person in India.

But I found it difficult to find reasonably written negative criticisms of the movie, apart from a certain amount of political criticism having to do with portrayal of poverty.

As a side note, the factual objection I found in several reviews — the fact that “Darshan Do Ghanshyam” was not written by Surdas as the movie quiz show says, it was written by Gopal Singh Nepali — is a bit surprising. You’d think that a movie about a quiz show that only has about 6 or 7 questions would take pains to get the information correct.

No, what I’m really surprised at is that others aren’t commenting on my main objection: I just find it incredible that that the official police could conduct a questioning of a person who is arguably the most famous and admired person at the moment in all of India as though he were an international terrorist, without attracting any public attention. The more I think about it, the more it lessens the movie for me. Yes, it’s a dramatic device that gives dramatic impact…but you can’t just make stuff up that couldn’t happen and expect people to respect the gritty cred of your movie.

I’m OK with the cell phone business at the end (though it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me other than as a plot device). I’m OK with the idea that the boy sees a $100 bill and remembers it’s Franklin. I’m OK with the idea that someone mentions the Colt revolver and the kid somehow makes the deduction that Colt invented it. Those are small plot points that moviegoers can readily suspend disbelief about.

But to suggest that the city police could take the most famous person in the country, a beloved hero of the working class, savagely beat him all night, hang him by his heels and apply electrodes to him for the nebulous “crime” of cheating on a quiz show (which is probably not even a crime to start with, just a breaking of TV show rules) defies reason.

It’s probably true that the underclasses of India don’t have a lot of social or legal power, but this lad has been seen on TV night after night by nearly every person in India, from crime syndicate bosses to gardeners at the Taj Mahal. He is the hero of the masses.

It’s not like the police are FBI or CIA conducting secret interrogations and beatings of suspected terrorists to find out where the suicide bombers are going to strike.

The TV news people even broadcast that this famous contestant is being questioned by police. Perhaps a certain number of people might turn on him. But wouldn’t you then anticipate, if you’re the police, that you might have several hundred thousand people camping outside your station to see what’s happening to their hero?

The hero finally convinces the police chief, who grudgingly lets him return to the show — and then appears on the show as though he’d just spent the night sleeping in a luxury hotel.

I’d love to hear arguments against my perspective from people knowledgeable of Indian society.

I understand that there are some atrocities that occur in India, wife-burning, for example, that may not appear credible to a guy raised in a small town on the temperate shores of Lake Erie. But there are news reports attesting to all that. What about savage police beatings of a public figure though?

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