“Bombay is the future of urban civilization on the planet. God help us.”
—Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found
No matter what people like us say, the cinematic takeaway from 2008 is clear. The films from last year that the average person will remember in coming decades are most likely going to be Wall-E and The Dark Knight. Never mind that one could go on about all the better and more provocative films that hit theaters during the same 12 months, but were only seen by a fraction of 2008’s movie goers. Those are the two films that most people are going to look back and remember as the year’s best, the ones they talk about with friends and family, saying, “You know, that was a good movie.” Maybe The Curious Case of Benjamin Button slips in the conversations of the more romantically-minded, but that’s about it.
Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
US theatrical: 12 Nov 2008 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 9 Jan 2009 (General release)
So what was Slumdog Millionaire doing on Sunday night, winning the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Drama? Not only that, why did it just feel right? In two months of US release, playing to almost uniformly ecstatic reviews and glowing word of mouth, Slumdog Millionaire pulled in only about a fifth the money that The Dark Knight made in its opening weekend. No matter how good a film it is, at that pace it’s never going to reach even a fraction of the audience that Dark Knight and Wall-E did.
Contrary to popular opinion, Hollywood is not an industry obsessed only with chasing its own tail. Well, maybe about half the time that’s what it does. Mostly, though, its filmmakers are desperately trying to peer over the horizon, to see what’s coming next. Given how long it takes to make a film these days, to succeed one has to have radar so well attuned to the future that whatever the audience is in the mood for years down the road will mesh perfectly with what you have spent millions of dollars and thousands of hours of people’s time making years prior.
In the case of Wall-E and The Dark Knight, Hollywood guessed right, but it also had the audience primed. Years of stoking a popular taste for thoughtful animated fictions and muscular comic-book fables made the guessing game a little safer. It was a little strange, then, to see the Hollywood Foreign Press Association not bestow its greatest honors on these films. (Of course, Wall-E did rightfully win best animated feature, but by its very nature, that category has a shallow pool of contenders, to say the least.)
What Hollywood did in 2008 may have worked then, both stateside and abroad, but it’s by no means guaranteed to continue working in the future. Slumdog Millionaire is a mongrel piece of work based on a novel by a globe-trotting Indian diplomat. It’s structured around a frequently franchised international game show, stocked with Indian cinema heavyweights, and shot like a jittery thesis film by a dark-hearted Brit who is seemingly ill-suited to the story’s romantic light. But the film’s swirled-in cultural streams—equal parts Dickensian grotesquery, Horatio Alger striving, ‘90s arthouse growl, and Bollywood flair—just may make it the perfect kind of creation to survive in the world’s increasingly cross-pollinated cultural landscape.
So while American filmmakers contemplate the apocalypse (Wall-E) and the moral vagaries of the war on terror (The Dark Knight), Bollywood keeps reaching for the stars. There’s, of course, darkness aplenty in Slumdog Millionaire, but it’s a darkness that can be transcended. Its world is a teeming and fetid mess, garlanded with oases of beauty and brief moments of peace accessible only to those who fight for it. The workers of 18th century London and 19th century Chicago would probably have felt right at home in the film’s 21st century Mumbai. The filth and squalor is jammed right on top of the city’s air-conditioned bubbles of wealth, so that the poor know precisely what they are missing out on. That space in between—whether envisioned by Dickens, Dreiser, or Boyle—is only crossed by dreams, luck, and back-breaking labor.
Just as there are nations like India whose economies are primed and ready to topple America’s, so too creative factories like Bollywood are ready to battle for their share of the world’s entertainment time. The foreign pressers who gathered the glitterati of Hollywood to the Beverly Hilton on Sunday night knew this, and giving their top honor to Slumdog Millionaire was like sending up a signal flare as warning to the presumptuous Hollywood.
At the end of a long evening that had been fairly dripping with tears and Moet, Slumdog Millionaire‘s filmmakers and cast gleefully crowded the stage, looking for all the world like the heirs apparent. If there was indeed a hole ripped in the future of cinema—as Christopher Nolan put it in his crisp dedication to Heath Ledger, accepting his posthumous supporting actor Golden Globe—there is clearly no shortage of willing aspirants to mend it.