Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Succeeding to the kingdom?

Slumdog Millionaire belongs to the pre-modern narrative genre known as the rags to riches fable.

Its literary practitioners have from ancient times been far more interested in showing us the obstacle-strewn biography of one particular underdog on his or her route to a success underwritten by a fully-realised potential, than they have been in showing how underdogs as a socioeconomic group can go about casting off their chains...thereby bettering the society around them.

But here in modern Britain, there appear to be enough people who, spotting the limited amount of realism that Danny Boyle has blended into his fable, feel that he should have gone the whole hog.

TC informed me for instance that it bothered her that the film has apparently been structured to allow audiences to have the brief thrill of exposure to the darker side of the developing world, before all that is conveniently erased by the 'feel-good' pay-off at the end.

These views reflect those of Alice Miles of the Times who has written the film off as "poverty porn", quoting Vrinda Nabar, an Indian professor at a US university, who griped that "Slumdog's eventual victory comes at a price. When the selective manipulation of Third World squalor can make for a feel-good movie in a dismal year, the global village has a long way to go."

Rob Lyons in Spiked-Online adds that "While there is at least some depth to the portrayal of the brothers, every other character in the film falls into one of three categories: victim, spectator or bastard...Even if we take Boyle's intended message at face value, there is something rather nauseating about glorifying the resilience of the slum-dwellers. Such a message tends to suggest that there is something noble about being poor. This is a romantic view of poverty that appeals to the middle classes in the West rather than reflecting the aspirations of the poor."

Lyons goes on to stifle any comparisons with Dickens, because he says, the latter's characters triumph against their ambient villains through hard work not simply because "it is written".

The point is however that even Dickens is too modern an author for the comparison to be useful. We need to look back to the period before the French Revolution for the appropriate antecedents. Think of Cinderella (itself dating back to an a ninth century Chinese folk tale), Aladdin, the biblical Joseph, Dick Wittington, The Ugly Duckling etc.

In The Seven Basic Plots Christopher Booker identifies this story template as one of the oldest forms of political escapism, in which "someone who has seemed to the world quite commonplace is dramatically shown to have been hiding the potential for a second, much more exceptional self within", a potential that will eventually permit this someone to 'succeed to a kingdom'.

Although the outward progress is from rags to riches, it is the inward progress that this tale is really charting. The true, selfless qualities of the character have been fully realised and rewarded. Dark figures representing alternative life choices that have surrounded the hero(ine) from birth (and on into their disregarded childhood) have been definitively seen off. According to Booker such individuals are "defined by their egocentricity, their blinkered vision, their incapacity for true, selfless love."

It's a story we've had told to us many times, particularly in childhood. Inevitably then, some people are going to feel that the film is either not grown-up enough for them, or that it has nothing new to say to them.

My own view is that they will be ignoring what Danny Boyle intended here. It seems certain to me that he was attempting to fabricate a bridge between traditional and modern storytelling, between our hard-edged western cinematic treatments of the underclass and India's own highly escapist underdog fantasies. I find a deliberate irony in his representation of the Mumbai cops, who can be interpreted either as simplistic pantomime villains or the grittier underside to Jamal's fairy-tale.

You can really take your pick as to whether he's upgrading an old format or downgrading a new one, whether he's being disingenuous about his ingenuousness or vice versa.

Given the choice, my vote would still be for Slumdog to get the Oscar for best film. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is also a fable, but a bizarre hybrid where we asked in essence to consider what it means when physical and intellectual maturity set off in opposite directions. It looks beautiful, but I indeed considered what it means, and the answer is not a lot.

Anyway, Danny Boyle's film and the debate it is generating, are certainly becoming something of a contemporary cultural mirror. As AA Gill noted last Sunday:

"Slumdog Millionaire is unmistakably a film that is the harbinger of hard times. Stories of poor Everymen who improbably win improbable riches and marry their improbable childhood's improbable sweetheart come straight from the Depression. Expect a lot more flicks about shop assistants who inherit titles, poor kids who put on Broadway shows, and the triumph of the little man against blunt power. Baz Luhrmann's Australia may be risibly tinny, but its cultural instinct is right on the zeitgeist."

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