In a dyspeptic disquisition on screen adaptations from books in last Saturday’s Guardian, Salman Rushdie coughs up some colorful bile in the general direction of the recent Oscar favorite.
It used to be the case that western movies about India were about blonde women arriving there to find, almost at once, a maharajah to fall in love with, the supply of such maharajahs being apparently endless and specially provided for English or American blondes; or they were about European women accusing non-maharajah Indians of rape, perhaps because they were so indignant at having being approached by a non-maharajah; or they were about dashing white men galloping about the colonies firing pistols and unsheathing sabres, to varying effect. Now that sort of exoticism has lost its appeal; people want, instead, enough grit and violence to convince themselves that what they are seeing is authentic; but it’s still tourism. If the earlier films were raj tourism, maharajah-tourism, then we, today, have slum tourism instead. In an interview conducted at the Telluride film festival last autumn, Boyle, when asked why he had chosen a project so different from his usual material, answered that he had never been to India and knew nothing about it, so he thought this project was a great opportunity. Listening to him, I imagined an Indian film director making a movie about New York low-life and saying that he had done so because he knew nothing about New York and had indeed never been there. He would have been torn limb from limb by critical opinion. But for a first world director to say that about the third world is considered praiseworthy, an indication of his artistic daring. The double standards of post-colonial attitudes have not yet wholly faded away.
Like most Oscar winners, Slumdog had not yet enticed the Outliers to make an effort to go see it in a movie theater. Nor is it likely now to find a place in our never-very-long Netflix queue. We’ve already seen, courtesy of Netflix, Thom Fitzgerald’s award-winning, disgusting, poverty-porn movie, The Wild Dogs (2002), which views Romanians as nothing but beggars, con-men, sex workers, or dog catchers—and compares them with heavy-handed symbolism to the wild dogs of Bucharest, which the government is determined to euthanize. All foreigners there (or at least all Canadians!), on the other hand, are either corrupt exploiters or naive do-gooders. And the path from exploiter to do-gooder requires finding your own personal beggar to support: the Canadian ambassador’s wife takes on a legless beggar boy, who follows her around like a puppy; the Canadian pornographer tries to redeem himself by repeatedly giving stuff to a reverse-kneed, hand-walking beggar, whose companions promptly steal it from him; and the Romanian dog-catcher tries to redeem himself by creating a refuge for dogs he was supposed to have euthanized, only to be arrested and have his dogs taken away. I fully agree with the reviewer on Rotten Tomatoes, whose review (no longer available online) includes the quote, “No one in this sterile film is redeemed, condemned or even particularly humanized…. Ultimately, Fitzgerald’s gutless film is a muddled, grotesque travelogue.”
Sorry. Next time I’ll tell you how I really feel.