‘Slumdog’ loser

2009-03-12 00:00

Just before going out to see the Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, I happened to be in the vicinity of a television and saw Oprah Winfrey doing one of her giveaways. You knew she was doing one of her giveaways, because the audience erupted in an orgy of delight and avarice that is matched on no other programme on television — except occasionally Ellen [DeGeneris], who not only is rapidly losing her surname, but also seems to need to guarantee audience devotion by giving them garish gifts.

I wondered what it could possibly be that had whipped them into such a froth. And as I stood there, and as the strange electronic tablet they each held rapturously in their hand was explained, I realised I was in one of those moments after which nothing is ever going to be the same. I had something similar, in London in the eighties, when a newly discovered “gay disease” was discussed on a TV programme. I knew, then, that nothing was going to be same afterwards. And it wasn’t.

What I was seeing now was of the same gravitas as my first e-mail, the invention of penicillin and humans landing on the moon. (I understand I am two years late in this revelation, because that’s how long this thing has been around).

The tablet which the audience held in their hands and which Winfrey was positively quivering about, is a thing called a Kindle. It is an electronic gadget onto which you can download up to 4 000 books. Not only that, but if you don’t understand one of the words in the book while you are reading, you can look it up in its dictionary and you will receive an immediate answer to your query. And there is more. If you want to know something extraordinarily obscure, like when do the leaves turn yellow in Kansas, there is a band of live, online people who will research that piece of useless information for you, and get back to you with the answer in five minutes. But wait, there is more. If you lose your Kindle and start feeling upset because your library is completely lost, never fear, because they have stored a copy of your personal library somewhere in the ether and will just download it for you onto your replacement Kindle. So, basically, this is something you can carry around with you for your whole life. You can have copies of everything you have ever read on it and copies of everything you will ever want to read on it, including magazines and newspapers, which can be delivered to you on a daily basis.

And so, the death knell of the paper book is sounded. It is over. It is virtually as archaic as the telex machine and the wind-up motor car. And of course, as a welcome by-product, it certainly means that fewer trees will be chopped down to make books. With such thoughts in my head, I headed off to see Slumdog Millionaire.

This is a film, as I am sure you know, about a boy from the slums of India, who wins a Q&A television game Who wants to be a Millionaire? It is a fairly clever plot, in which the reasons why the boy knows all the answers to the programme are revealed through flashbacks to other incidents in his life.

But, like the unbearable Titanic, there is an inevitability about the film which makes you long for death. And that is really not the worst of it, as far as I am concerned. Besides the modern camera angles and zooming in and out and in-focus, out-focus fiddling about, the entire movie is made for tame Western eyes. Poverty is prettified and extraordinarily colourful; the bad guys are simple mono-dimensional characters, children are soiled but cute and the women are stereotypically beautiful. The whole thing is a travesty — a garish mirage.

Anyone with even the most basic experience of India will tell you there is no way on Earth you would be able to wait casually at a railway station in an attempt to perhaps spot your beloved because you would be swept away on the tide of seething humanity, within minutes. No, seconds. And the unrelenting shock of the place is that every one of your senses is assaulted simultaneously. And the assault never stops until you leave. This film shows none of these things. Slumdog is essentially a caricature, unlike films such as Salaam Bombay.

Leaving the movie in an irritated and ratty frame of mind, I could not help pondering the disparity (and the connection) between the two worlds. Unpretentious and somewhat twee India, produced in the garish West. While probably, in a few years time, the people of the slums will be making the Kindles en masse for the European market, but never having the wherewithal to own or use one for themselves.

• Michael Worsnip is director: 2010 World Cup Unit, Western Cape Province, Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport. He writes in his personal capacity.

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