Destiny and other problems

Slumdog Millionaire. Definitely one of the best films of last year. Not on my top ten list for the decade, but an enjoyable film that really struck a chord with audiences.

There has been a lot of debate over the film, including some points I think are worth taking a moment to address.

1) It's emotionally manipulative.
Well, uh, yeah. It's a movie. Seriously, though, this is I think one of the oddest complaints and its one I've seen directed toward other popular movies, like E.T. I've never been sure whether the problem is that it's transparent about the emotions it's working to evoke, that it does so clumsily or incompletely, that it becomes melodramatic, or that it does so too well. Nearly all films, including documentaries... in fact, nearly all art, is emotionally manipulative. Whether it's simply trying to share a sense of the wonder of a panorama, or to get us to share the soaring hopes and failures of a character, that is part of what movies do. Do you really think There Will Be Blood was not manipulative?

2) It's culturally biased.
Well, the Indian co-director did her best to help temper cultural insensitivities, and my impression is that she did an excellent job. A little of this is unavoidable any time you have a film being made about a country and culture that the director is not native to. I think it's far less culturally insensitive than, say, Last of the Mohicans is about Native Americans, or The Hunt for Red October is about Russians. Even a native Indian director would have their own bias: muslim/hindu, Mumbai native or from another city, etc.

3) It glamorizes poverty/It makes the poor look bad/It makes Mumbai look like a crime-ridden slum/It only shows one side of India
I did not find that it made poverty look appealing. I can't imagine any kid watching Slumdog and thinking it would be cool to be poor like that. Nor does it portray all the poor folks in the same light (all good or all bad.) I don't know how anyone could see the harshness of burning out a child's eye so they will make more money begging as "glamorizing," unless they were just looking at the pretty colors and the lovely cinematography. And in the two brothers it shows the choices that most poor face: embrace a life of crime and try to profit at great risk, OR work hard and be honest and hope that destiny will deliver you to a better life.
As for only showing one side of India or portraying Mumbai as a slum: The only slum larger than the one portrayed in Slumdog is in Nairobi. Dharavi is home to millions, and it is most definitely a slum (though one that is beginning to be redeveloped.) And since when has it been the responsibility of any movie to accurately portray an entire nation. It's not the job of a movie to give an accurate and balanced view of India, and this kind of criticism only points out how much further world cinema has to go.

4) Destiny? That's weak.
A lot of people were frustrated by the plot revolved which around a character who felt he was destined to achieve what he achieves. There are three things they miss.

First: Destiny holds a much more important place in the thinking of a culture where most marriages are still arranged and where poverty is a much less permeable barrier than in the US. The film's character believes in destiny.
Second: Most Hollywood Romance movies, and many other films, rely to a large extent on destiny. They found each other because they were meant to be together. It's a fairly common device.
Third: Destiny... or the sum of a life's choices? How can you tell the difference? is there one? I am sitting here now writing this blog, and I can go back and point to various instances in my life that led me to be exactly where I am and who I am now, that led up to this precise point. They were things that happened to me, and how I responded to them. To say that a character is Destined is only to say that what must occur does occur, or what does occur must. Destiny is no mystery. Destiny does not negate choices, it simply uses our choices to manifest itself.

5) The acting was weak.
OK. I concede this one. At least as far as the leads were concerned. I think that Dev Patel was flat, and am glad that he was only in a fraction of the film. The younger actors were full of spark and life and were completely wonderful. Frieda Pinto's performance completely lacked nuance - but that does not matter for reasons I'll get to shortly. The other actors, however, were great, including the older Salim. So I don't think Dev Patel should win any awards for his performance, but he did manage not to muck up the movie as a whole.

6) Latika was a golddigger, or Latika was way underdeveloped
There were subtleties in the character that a better actress could have brought to light. She sacrificed her virginity to save Jamal's life, but part of her wanted him to somehow stop Salim. Instead, Jamal ran away, and left her to become a trophy to the local mafioso. So yeah, when he showed up again it took her a little while to warm up to him. And she knew that if she ran away, the bad guys would come after her - so it would take some money to get someplace safe. Asking about money was practical, but it was also defensive - fear of being judged, criticism of Jamal who had abandoned her for so long... but ultimately, Latika's character and her feelings are unimportant for one simple reason.
I'm surprised that no one seems to have seen her this way, but Latika is not so much a character, as she is the MacGuffin.
Latika is what motivates much of the key action in the film, not just because she is what Jamal wants above all else, but because that desire directs many of Salim's actions, and desire to possess Latika motivates the beggar-king, and the mafioso.
Latika is the MacGuffin. It doesn't matter one bit if she loves Jamal. It's the journey toward her, toward the object of desire, that gives an order and a meaning to the otherwise apparently random string of events that make up Jamal's life.