NOTE: If you haven’t seen Slumdog Millionaire, this article has some spoilers. Consider yourself warned.
If you know me or have read my posts, you know that I loved the movie Slumdog Millionaire. As a film buff and new film student, it has all the elements for me: Screenplay, cinematography, score and music to name a few. So it was no surprise to me when the movie won most of the technical Academy Awards it was nominated for. The movie literally made my heart full and was one of the most satisfying experiences I had with a film since-well, I can’t remember the last time I was so moved, inspired and in awe of a film.
Okay, enough gushing. You can’t talked about this film without talking about the cultural element that made the film rich for some, and troubling to others. The film addresses issues of poverty, crime, discrimination in a way that is not hopeless enough for some, and too gritty for others. Some Indians have spoken out against the film, saying that it casts a negative light people who live in the slums of India. Some claim that the movie made the slums of Mumbai seems like a petri dish of society’s lowest, filled with gangsters who are willing to blind children to increase profits, and doesn’t acknowledge the fact that good can dwell anywhere, even in the most deplorable conditions.
To which I reply: It’s a movie.
Notice that I didn’t say it’s just a movie. Movies are powerful for a reason. They appeal to our most primal sense: Sight. We process images faster than we process any other source of information input.Â I have learned various tenets in screenwriting that help me understand why movies like Slumdog shouldn’t be made to conform to people’s comfort levels with current reality.
1. Make a world. One of the first things I learned in my screenwriting class is that the screenwriter’s first obligation is to create a world in which the characters live.Â This is most obvious is movies like Star Wars or The Matrix, but all movies do it, even docu-dramas. The world will not look exactly like the world we live in, and it shouldn’t, for reasons I’ll discuss below.
2. Think visually. The sight of a man burning out a child’s eyes with acid is more compelling than a man giving a child a story book. Yes, there is good everywhere, but the bad is more emotionally affective, and easier to visualize.Â Because of this, evil is often a more effective tool for movies than being a good Samaritan.
3. Characters need to be interesting. This is related to the second point. Despite public outcries to the contrary, people do not want to see movies about themselves. What are you doing right now? If you reading this, you are probably sitting in front of a computer. Now think: Would you pay $10 to see yourself doing what you’re doing right now? Movie characters have to be “more” everything than us– sexy, smart,attractive,unattractive,Â honorable, deplorable, savvy, loser-ly, you get the picture.
And while I hold this movie truths to be evident, that all is fair in the name of true art, I have to acknowledge the fact that I am not the average American. I have an advanced degree, I grew up in culturally diverse environments, I’ve traveled international and I read pretty regularly. What all of this means is that I have been trained to be a critical consumer of information and media. I don’t see a film like Slumdog Millionaire and think “Wow, I never knew India was like this,” rather, I think, “That was an amazing story.” Authors like Mitu Sengupta are troubled by the fact that many will look at the film and let the imagery form their perspective on Indian culture. This is a legitimate concern, and groups such as the NAACP and GLAAD serve as media watch-dogs for marginalized groups for that reason.
What can the average person do to make sure they aren’t using the media to shape their opinions about other cultures?
1) Read. The news, books, magazines, you name it. Even some blogs are a good sources for unbiased information, believe it our not. The key is to have as many sources of information on a topic as possible.
2) Talk, preferably to people you don’t normally talk with. If you live in a small town that’s not diverse, talk to your librarian, a teacher, a service work, anyone. Talk to local business owners, especially of ethnic restaurants, and places such as dry cleaners, nail salons, convenient stores, and so on. (NOTE: There is a reason that there is an ethnic trend in the owners of certain small businesses.Â Read more about ethnic labor niches here).
3) Watch.Â Don’t just see one drama, see a documentary. Don’t just watch one news station, watch them all. The key is to become comfortable with perspectives that are different from your own.
Personally, I’d rather see more education take place than fixing art to make sure that people won’t think that all *insert marginalized group here* do *insert negative behavior here*. I believe this because more education is always better than less challenge. Besides, it will make sure that people like me always have something to do.