I feel like my entire life lately has revolved around the idea of cultural appropriation.  Last night I went to see Danny Boyle’s new movie, Slumdog Millionaire, with, appropriately enough, three other members of my postcolonial critical theory class.  The movie was fun and cute, but there were a lot of things about it that really bothered me.  If I could forget the problematic things about the film I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

For starters, what spurred our field trip was this opinion piece that our professor sent us about the movie.  I am unsure of how I feel about the arguments that the author puts forth about the movie, but he does brush against the kernel of the problem — much of what is portrayed in the movie is kind of a romanticized image of what the West views India to be like.  I think that the film might be a little more self-conscious about this fact (see the scene where young Jamal is conning money out of American tourists: while he takes them on a tour of his local area, his friends strip their Mercedes of everything; upon their return, the driver starts beating on Jamal and he exclaims, “you wanted a taste of the real India?  Well, this is it!”  The Americans respond by intervening and the woman says, “well, we’ll give you a taste of the real America, son,” and indicates her husband should produce some cash for Jamal) than the critic gives it credit for.  The surprisingly crowded Wednesday night theater laughed loudly, but uncomfortably, at this scene.

That doesn’t absolve the film of its sins though.  Danny Boyle is a British director, and the relationship between his country of origin and the country that’s the subject of his film.  I think that there are unresolved issues in the fact that Boyle is appropriating a story that is, in some ways, very Indian — it is based on a book by an Indian writer, it stars only Indian actors, and is a story that contains elements that are very Indian.  (Compare this to last year’s Wes Anderson film The Darjeeling Limited, which, while set in India, is a story that is very Western — and at least overtly imperialistic, in some ways.)  Why is Danny Boyle making this film?  It is clearly for Western audiences, but why don’t we see more of a crossover here with India’s burgeoning film industry?

Puzzling, to be sure.  It’s easy for the Western media press to fawn over Slumdog Millionaire and hail it as a kind of potential watershed film for more Indian crossovers into the Western mainstream, but it’s not really an Indian movie.  I find this the most puzzling paradox of all: it’s a movie about India, and though Indians may have acted in it, worked on its crew, and written the novel it was based on, Boyle is still the main mover and shaker in deciding what goes in, how the material is approached, and what gets left behind.  Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the screenplay, is also British.

It seems weird that this film is kind of being passed off in the media here as an Indian film.  It’s not.  It’s a British film about India, which should make anybody think a little more deeply about the movie.  I’m pretty ambivalent about it, and I think Boyle made a pretty gutsy move making the film, but I don’t know if it was the right one.

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