I’ll start this entry on Danny Boyle’s marvelous, if contrived, neon-lit dream jungle fantasy of a film with a quotation not having anything to do with the movies:
“The damned of Harlem and the South Bronx, the damned of Calcutta and Naples, the damned of… San Salvador and Manila; all these unskilled… but endlessly resourceful masses, laboring here one day and there another; idle and then not idle, starving and then not starving, alternating always between today’s hope and tomorrow’s despair; all these men, women, and children, with their eyes like wolves’ eyes, constitute a single if ignored human type who may have far more in common with one another… than anyone has yet imagined or attempted to verify.”
That’s the late anthropologist Thomas Belmonte, in his classic 1974 ethnography The Broken Fountain, who, despite his attempts to argue against “a culture of poverty” – that is, that “the poor” do not possess a common set of attitudes and behaviors that keep them in the underclass – still argues that they may “constitute a single… human type”. Belmonte was, of course, well aware of the great variations between different economic and political regimes that impinged upon the lives of the poor, but nonetheless the idea he advances – that they “may have far more in common with one another” – is rather tempting. The Global South could, in fact, be everywhere.
I can’t wholly agree with the idea that the poor are the same all over the world – a reductive rephrasing of the argument, I know, but I’m far too much of a believer in cultural specificity – but I’ll be damned if material conditions and cinematic narrative didn’t align so perfectly in this movie. I couldn’t help thinking, while watching Slumdog Millionaire, that practically everything on screen – the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor, the warren of alleys that make up the slums, the trash-choked rivers, the syndicate of child beggars, the scavengers taking up residence in the massive garbage dump, the art of the street hustle, our hero’s brief stint as a tourist guide for clueless Westerners, the customer-service call centers, the sudden explosion of a hyperglobalized economy (and the infrastructure that goes with it), the beautifully photographed scenes of people bathed in blue and huddled in front of a small television set as part of an imagined electronic community – could have all been filmed in the Philippines. Probably with better musical numbers, I might add.