Wednesday, February 25, 2009

“Scumbag Millionaire”

My wife referred to the movie Slumdog Millionaire using this term (the title of the post) completely unintentionally. I chuckled at the Freudian-esque slip of the tongue. I'm wondering if the term might be a more suitable moniker than it might seem. The production of the movie used two children who make the slums of Mumbai their home. These children received an eye-popping trip to L.A. for an appearance at the Oscars where the movie swept the awards show. As this article points out the children's families are being awarded new homes as a compensation for their work as actors in the movie. The children were scooped up from the slums and elevated to superstar status in a surreal life-imitating-art scenario.

What intrigued me about the movie are the deeper racial undertones that inform the discourse around this movie. First, it is clear that not everyone in the slums of Mumbai is all that thrilled at being labelled 'slumdogs' (a term that denotes laziness).

While everyone in the area was proud of their local stars, some objected to the film - and its title - that made them famous. "I'm poor, but no one can call me a dog," said Fakrunissa Sheikh, 40, who lives in a lean-to next to Azhar's. "I work very hard."

There seems to be a sense that the depiction of life in the slums, even though it drew starlight attention ("as television lights and camera flashbulbs lit up the slum.") and national pride, produced a marginalizing effect on the people the movie portrayed. So that even in drawing the most spectacular attention to their life – they are reduced to an invisibility caused by hypervisibility (a la Gordon in Ghostly Matters).

Second, a new kind of colonialism seems to have emerged in the way we entertain ourselves. Entertainment is the new (or not so new) imperial frontier. The world we live in is dictated to by the rhetoric contained in the entertainment consumed as music, television, movies, etc. Companies with imperial strength have dominated the world in terms of what content is consumed and the way (style) that content is produced. Hollywood dominates this entertain-olonialism. So that the stories and lyrics and pictures we get to see and hear are qualitatively homogenous. This homogeneity is inevitable since even the emerging Bollywood sets its sights on producing movies to rival those of its American cousin. This type of hegemony inevitably leads to certain ideas being privileged but also the way those ideas are being presented being privileged.

Consider for a moment the television station Al Jazeera. Even though, its perspective is decidedly different (and often opposing) than that of many American News Organizations (CNN, FOX, MSNBC), it can be easily argued that the method and style of its presentation is unequivocally imitative of the American 'standard'. This stylistic concern shows that a certain form of perspective is privileged over another.

The question that remains unanswered then is this: Does conforming to the entertain-olonialistic standard allow for meaningful contestation of underprivileged discourse or does it subvert this perspective even more?

In the case of Slumdog Millionaire the TV lights and microphones will soon be gone and the slums will once again not only be returned to their darkness but to new invisibility in that darkness due in part to it new found fame.

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