81st Academy Awards: Slumdog Takes It

February 23, 2009 at 6:12 am 11 comments

slumdog-millionaire-12

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

Crazy as this may seem, tonight I was rooting for a movie I have yet to see. And when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture I was jumping-out-of-my-seat happy. Identity politics at its worst? Maybe—but for me it was the joy of seeing Bollywood invade Hollywood, and Asians in the inner circle at last. (My heart was broken a couple years ago when Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash, not only because Brokeback was a much superior film but because I feared that homophobia as well as racism might’ve contributed to its defeat.)

The night started with a series of small wins for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button and I fretted that it might be business as usual on Oscar night again, with the bland, big-budget, eurocentric Hollywood product taking the evening’s prizes. But at some point in the evening Slumdog started to pick up some awards and I started to feel a bit more hopeful. Then when composer A.R. Rahman won for Best Score and gave his acceptance speech in English and Tamil, followed shortly by Slumdog’s Danny Boyle taking Best Director (plus the film’s five other subsequent awards), I sensed the tide was turning. And, though it had nothing to do directly with Slumdog, when Sean Penn won an upset Best Actor victory against favorite Mickey Rourke, and gave a shout-out to our “elegant’ new President as well as calling shame on those who supported Prop. 8, I knew there was a paradigm shift in the making. Slumdog won the big prize immediately afterwards and the evening was complete.

Dev Patel & Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

Dev Patel & Freida Pinto looking pretty, Slumdog Millionaire, 2008

So tonight was a great win for Asian cinema, even though Slumdog is directed by an Englishman and strictly speaking, isn’t a Bollywood product. But its subject matter, stars, themes, and aesthetic are decidedly South Asian and the fact that the Academy chose to honor it over Brad Pitt’s conventionally Hollywood star vehicle seems somehow significant to me. Dare I say that it reminds me of Barack Obama and the barriers he’s shattered with his election? Some might argue that equating the Best Picture Oscar with the election of the U.S. President is a bit of stretch, but I’m in the business of cultural criticism and I think Slumdog’s victory is pretty relevant. It was thrilling to see the huge Slumdog contingent, British, Indian, and everything in between, up on the stage at the Academy Awards, which is the primary symbol and celebration of Hollywood’s cultural hegemony. So, yeah, I need to watch Slumdog soon, but because of its big win tonight, I feel like I’ve already seen what I need to see. In some small way, tonight the margins have moved a bit closer to the center.

The Slumdog crew at the Oscars, 2009

The Slumdog crew at the Oscars, 2009

UPDATE: Breaking it down, via The Inspired Economist–a good, measured discussion of Slumdog, including a mention of the the film’s “poverty porn.”

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11 Comments Add your own

  • […] Original post by beyondasiaphilia […]

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  • 2. Oliver Wang  |  February 23, 2009 at 8:14 am

    Valerie,

    I hear what you’re saying but seriously – you really should see the movie first. I found the film completely overrated and much of the identity politics angle to its enjoyment is stunted by the ways in which the film arguably aestheticizes 3rd World poverty. And frankly, Bollywood doesn’t need Hollywood as a legitimizer. If anything, Hollywood is lucky that one of their movies taken seriously in the Indian film industry.

    Reply
  • 3. Oliver Wang  |  February 23, 2009 at 8:16 am

    May I also add: to me, the feel good + political win would have been “Milk” (which I was rooting for but knew was a long shot).

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  • 4. valeriesoe  |  February 23, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Hey O,
    Funny, you’re the second person to tell me to see the movie first–maybe I don’t need to see it after all! Bollywood rocks, of course, but how many casual first-world film viewers know that? You’re right, though, about legitimization. But I still liked hearing Tamil on primetime US television.

    v.

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  • 5. valeriesoe  |  February 23, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Hey O,

    RE: Milk. Loved it, with reservations (see previous post). Sean Penn brought it in his acceptance speech, though. Also, they showed the big-ass Sean/James Franco kiss in the middle of the broadcast, which I loved.

    v.

    Reply
  • 6. DP  |  February 23, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Hey, I’m at work, so I may add on to this comment later. But I loved Slumdog. It was cinema. An amazing amalgamation of cinematography, editing and sound coming together to support and reinforce the story. A film firing on all cylinders. I can’t recommend it enough. So there. It’s the first time since Rocky (when I was eleven) that my fave film of the year won best picture, so I’m happy. As for this being a paradigm shift of some sort, I wouldn’t hold your breath. Remember the year of Indie Cinema when Breaking the Waves and Secrets and Lies were nominated (I think those were the films). Well the academy returned to their schlocky ways pretty quickly. Still this was cool for a moment.

    DP

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  • 7. Oliver Wang  |  February 23, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    I gotta say – I must have really missed out on what made Slumdog so great the first time around; maybe it’ll merit a second viewing. To me, I thought it was technically proficient (Boyle’s obviously a capable director) but I just couldn’t get past how ticky-tack a fairytale this was, especially in contrasting the brutality of these children’s lives against something as inane as a game show narrative.

    Not to mention the absolute ZERO chemistry between the romantic leads. It’s a bit hard to buy into the “it’s our destiny to be together!” storyline when all I could imagine, “I can’t see these two on a successful first date, let alone the universe yearning for them to be together.”

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  • 8. valeriesoe  |  February 23, 2009 at 9:19 pm

    I will clearly need to see the film and make the ultimate decision as to its merit. But until then, tonight I’m seeing Serbis, the new Brillante Mendoza movie, who’s a man not immune to the lure of “slum porn,” even if it’s about his own people (see Tirador). But Foster Child is a great flick, so he gets a pass. Tonight’s movie will be the tiebreaker.

    v.

    Reply
  • 9. B. Vergara  |  February 26, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Hey Valerie,

    So did you ever find out whether there was a crowd of Chinese folks on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage when “The Last Emperor” won?

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  • 10. valeriesoe  |  February 26, 2009 at 10:50 pm

    Hey Sunny,

    Good question–I couldn’t find any photographic evidence from The Last Emperor’s win, but I did have a look at the cast & crew list on imdb. Looks like most of the crew was Italian (via Bertolucci), whereas Slumdog had a large Indian contigent in the crew, including significant creatives such as art direction, wardrobe, and of course soundtrack, as well as the camera department, second unit and editing. So I daresay that Slumdog’s esthetic was more Indian than The Last Emperor’s was Chinese, if only judging by the amount of creative imput from the respective crews. Whattaya think?

    v.

    PS: Did you know that The Last Emperor won in every category it was nominated for? I think that’s only happened once or twice before.

    Reply
  • […] including Daniel Wu, Daniel Henney, and of course Bruce Lee. Although times are changing and Slumdog Millionaire won Oscar’s Best Picture this year, roles for Asian lead actors are still non-existent in […]

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