DISCLAIMER: This contains spoilers; if you still want to see Slumdog Millionaire, do not read this!
As I watched Slumdog Millionaire, I honestly enjoyed it, but something started to nag at me. Looking at this film as a whole, something seemed off. Near the end of the movie I realized what it was. Aside from Jamal and Latika, there is not a SINGLE other Indian character in this movie that is not an incredibly evil person. From the abusive police officers at the beginning of the film, to gangsters, to pimps and even the game show host that feeds Jamal the wrong answer, everyone seems hell bent on making Jamal's life miserable. At one point, I lost count of the number of times Jamal and his brother were beaten by various adults in the film. By no means was I expecting this to be Disney-esqe rags to riches tale, but at the same time, I couldn't help but be appalled by the raw amount evil this movie would lead us to believe resides in the Mumbai slums, and by extension Indian people in general.
My ancestors left India at least 4 generations ago, so I won't pretend to be an expert on the situation over there, but I do feel that the poor conditions in Slumdog may be greatly exaggerated with its Western audience in mind. It is not a stretch to assume that most Westerners have preconceived notions about poverty and destitution in India. This film serves to reinforce these perceptions as filthy children sleep in piles of garbage, rivers of excrement flow like water, and religious rioters run amok while police refuse to keep order. On recent interview with The Daily Show, host John Stewart asked actor Dev Patel if the people in the Mumbai slums were "angry" about their situation. Surprisingly, Patel noted that the people were not quite angry, and in fact lived peacefully with one another. This is not the impression that the film gave. In trying to make a movie that is "real" and "gritty", director Danny Boyle turned the Mumbai slums into a post-apocalyptic nightmare with very little chance of survival for those that live there. Frankly, I felt the modern and developing side of India was largely ignored, even when Jamal and Salim move back to Mumbai near the end of the movie. It is, essentially like shooting a film about New York and showing nothing but tenement buildings, drug dealers and pollution. While all of these are in New York City, such a film would be limited in scope and ignore the big picture.
This is not a new trend either. I cite as example the two films House of Flying Daggers and Hero, both films that were popular with Western moviegoers. These films feature over-exaggerated Chinese flare with actors flying around the screen and engaging in mortal combat through exotic acrobatics, all while bastardizing the art of wuxia. There are also similar in that both stay from the traditional style of Chinese wuxia film by focusing less on plot and more on action. A serious argument cannot be made that these films represent Chinese culture even if the director, Zhang Yimou is Chinese. To Western audiences, these films serve to reinforce preconceived Western notions of China and Chinese culture as mystical and magical place with exotic women and kung fu warriors leaping through forests of bamboo. Likewise, Slumdog Millionaire reinforces Western notions of Indians being dirty, brutal savages.
It seems that the day where a realistic movie is made about Indians in India seems very far away. Until a director, Western or Indian steps out of his comfort zone and takes a frank look at life in the slums, movies will continue to either be over-the-top Bollywood flair or a movie where every character is violent, barbaric and evil. All that being said, Slumdog Millionaire was a thoroughly enjoyable film deserving of every Oscar it won. The roles were filled with talented and very capable rising actors that I hope to see in future films. This really was an enjoyable film, but as I said before, I just couldn't ignore that awkward, uncomfortable feeling.