A defense of fairytales

While I am waiting for a necessary email to come in, I thought I’d ramble about  this Alternet criticismof Slumdog Millionaire by Mitu Sengupta.

Sengupta’s main points are:

  • The movie uses unrealistic plot devices like “fate” to deliver fairytale endings to its impoverished and abused characters.
  • The deus ex machina is an imported quiz show, and thus a love letter to top-down globalization and cultural imperialism.

She writes:

Corruption is certainly rampant among the police, and many will gladly use torture, though none is probably dim enough to target an articulate, English-speaking man who is already a rising media phenomenon. Beggar-makers do round-up abandoned children and mutilate them in order to make them more sympathetic, though it is highly improbable that any such child will ever chance upon a $100 bill, much less be capable of identifying it by touch and scent alone.

Indeed, if anything, Boyle’s magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among India’s poor. It is near-impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent.

I tire of this criticism, which these days seems to be flung at every work of fiction that involves poor people and is not unrelentingly grim and depressing. I remember that when Juno came out, there were lots of people (on the Left, and with whom I am normally in complete agreement), who argued that Juno was a shallow, unrealistic, bourgeois,  and even anti-feminist portrayal of teen pregnancy, and that Diablo Cody should have made the American 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days instead.

Or how Khaled Hosseini was criticized for allowing Laila to not only live, but reunite with and marry her long-lost childhood love in A Thousand Splendid Suns.  Because, apparently, stories involving Afghan women must always end with everyone  dead or miserable.

And I could give numerous other examples.

Look, I understand where the concerns about downplaying of poverty, oppression and racism come from, but we shouldn’t feel guilty about creating and enjoying the occasional fairytale –and that’s exactly what Slumdog Millionaire is, an urban fairytale for our era.  Throughout human history and in every culture, there have been stories of people at the bottom seeing all their dreams come true through a series of highly improbable or magical  events.

When I was a little girl, my mom gave me a book that was a collection of “Cinderella” stories from different cultures. There was a Chinese “Cinderella”, a Russian “Cinderella”, an African “Cinderella”, a Native American “Cinderella”, an Arab “Cinderella”, and so on.  Happily ever after was brought about by fairy godmothers and magic potions and giant, talking fish.

I don’t see how the plot devices in Slumdog Millionaire (which was based on an Indian novel, for those who don’t know that already) are any different. And let’s not forget that many Indian-directed, Indian-produced movies are also extravagantly unrealistic.

A little fantasy can be sanity-saving, and the poor know this perhaps most of all. Why else would people living in Kabul’s slums, lacking most survival necessities, spend their hard-earned money on diesel for the generators that power their small televisions? Why else would the two dozen plus Bosnian Roma I met last January living in an unheated mountain settlement do the same?

Everything begins with survival, but survival is not enough. Human beings need, and universally desire, more.

There is a place for art that mirrors or exaggerates real life, or serves advocacy purposes. But life would be a lot darker if there were no fairytales as well.

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One thought on “A defense of fairytales

  1. As an Indian who lives in the US, I’ve been reading the reactions to Slumdog from both countries with interest. In India there is worry (typically from the elite) that the country (and they themselves) will be seen poorly, because so few people see films about India and the film is not a “true” picture.

    Yet, in the US, the takeaway for viewers is nothing about the “misery” of India but the triumph of the human spirit. There is a greater interest in visiting the country as a result. This was a phenomenon with Borat as well (a way more unrealistic and far more unkind film about another developing nation). The is a spike in tourism in Kazakhstan.

    I have no doubt that India will embrace Slumdog in due course. And hopefully more Indians will try to do more about India’s warts than trying to cover them up.

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