MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Slumdog Millionaire and the Politics of Spin

What is it with the media’s insistence on attempting to spin stories to harm particular films?

After enjoying the bounce of positive buzz from the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, solid critical support and a box office take bigger than anyone could have dreamed for a subtitled Bollywood hybrid, Slumdog Millionaire finds itself the target of media attacks on several fronts, and once again, the language of spin is at the forefront, both in mainstream media publications and the blogosphere. Suddenly, in the wake of 10 Oscar noms and big box office, Slumdog finds itself in the unenivable position of being this year’s Juno — the “it’s-hip-to-tear-it-down” target of film journalists and bloggers eager to derail this year’s little movie that could.

I suppose it’s inevitable that Slumdog would find itself the target of some controversy. It’s a film about brown-skinned people written about and filmed by white people; it’s set in the slums of Mumbai and slum residents, including kids, comprised much of the cast; and it was picked up for distribution by Fox Searchlight, which has seen a run of successful acquisitions in the past couple years with films like JunoLittle Miss Sunshine and Once bolstering its rep as the indie arm of a big studio.

In a way, Slumdog’s an easy target for film journalists and bloggers: people competing for traffic will spin their stories as they can, seeking just the right combination in the dicey equation of controversy + readership = more readers. And maybe some of the journalists writing these stories do genuinely feel these are actual issues, as opposed to the latest buzz story to draw attention to themselves and their outlets, but it certainly seems to be the latest hot topic for folks to latch on to, and the specific use of language in many of these stories makes their motivations suspect. Let’s take a closer look.

Brown versus White

First up, we have Newsweek‘s Ramin Setoodeh (also one of MCN’s Gurus o’ Gold), who wrote this 241-word piece in which he tries to make a point about how the film is filled with brown faces, but only white ones are up for awards. Setoodeh doesn’t offer compelling arguments as to why the performances by the leads deserved to be in the running for acting awards against the actual nominees, nor does he make the case why the white faces behind the scenes, including director Danny Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy, do not. This is a classic case of spin playing the “race” card — putting out there the suggestion that the race of the director, writer and crew is an issue, without bothering to offer anything that backs up the assertion.

What exactly is Setoodeh’s argument? Does he think the film itself is flawed because of the race of the writer and director, or that the film would have been somehow better or more authentic with an Indian writer and director in charge? Does he mention any specific Indian directors or screenwriters he thinks would have done a better job with the source material? Does he take exception with the technical aspects of how white writer Beaufoy adapted the novel Q&A, by Indian novelist Vikas Swarup?

Does he perhaps think Boyle should have ditched cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who’s shot many of Boyle’s previous films, in favor of an Indian DP he’d never worked with? Does he question the overall balance of white versus brown crewmembers In the credits, and if so, what percentage would he have liked to have seen?

These are the kinds of issues you’d expect a journalistic piece in a mainstream news publication to delve into. Instead, we have 241 words raising the race issue with no assertions to back up any sort of argument as to why it’s an issue at all… which makes it spin for the sake of spin, rather than writing that raises issues in any concrete and useful way.

The Loveleen Tandan Issue

Setoodeh also briefly alludes to an issue some people are desperately trying to make a big deal of, Loveleen Tandan‘s contribution to the film as casting director, and Boyle’s subsequent decision to give her co-director credit on the film. Setoodeh uses the language of spin in this case as well. Following a quote from Fox Searchlight that says, in part, “There are hundreds … of films made by filmmakers about cultures and societies other than their own,” Setoodeh offers, “Though not without a lot of help,” before adding that Tandan will have to “settle for a thank you.” What Setoodeh doesn’t do, however, is offer anything to back up what he implies is a problem. Does Tandan herself think this is an issue? How exactly does the Academy or the Director’s Guild determine what constitutes “direction” versus “co-direction?” Would he argue that Tandan should be jointly listed as “director” rather than “co-director?” Does he understand the difference between the two designations?

Tandan was originally the Slumdog’s Indian casting director. It was her job to help Boyle cast the many Indian parts in the film. Along the way, she offered input that Boyle felt went beyond her role as casting director; in particular, she persuaded Boyle that the scenes with the children had to be shot in Hindi and subtitled or the film would not feel authentic, rewrote certain scenes and shot some scenes with a handheld camera. Boyle, who has been very open in interviews about recognizing Tandan’s contributions to the film, gave her credit as “co-director, India,” and Tandan herself has said in interviews she’s happy with being credited as co-director, and that she doesn’t want this issue to take away from the film Boyle made. But Setoodeh isn’t alone in trying to spin this issue for all it’s worth.

Over on a site called Hot Pink Pen there’s a post titled “Slumdog Brouhaha: Reacting to the Oscar noms.” This post is a typical example of an ill-informed blog rant with very little in the way of fact to back up the assertion of an overblown headline. The blogger, Jan Lisa Huttner, asserts in her opener that it is “NOT my intention to do anything to either damage box office prospects for this wonderful film, or negatively impact the flow of international awards & accolades.” And yet, she says, she is both “stunned and shocked” that Tandan was not co-nominated for Best Director.

Why exactly is she stunned and shocked? Does she point to a long history of the Academy recognizing co-directors in the nominations? No, she does not, because there is no such history. The Oscar for best direction pertains to the actual directing of the film: it essentially recognizes the way in which the director (not the co-director, or the first assistant director, or the second unit director, or the best boy, or the gaffer) pulled all the various elements of story, visuals, sound, cast and crew together in bringing his or her vision to life in the final product. Every single person who worked on the making of a film contributed to how it looks in the end, but the director is ultimately the person who makes the decisions that determine what the final film looks like, and that is what the Best Director Oscar recognizes.

Women & Hollywood‘s Melissa Silverstein, a marketing consultant for “femme” films, also writes about the issue in a Huffington Post piece. In her piece, Silverstein talks about Ethanand Joel Coen being jointly Oscar-nominated for No Country for Old Men, while Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were both credited as directors (though were not nominated for an Oscar for their direction) for Little Miss Sunshine. What Silverstein fails to mention is thatEthan Coen was the uncredited director on ten films before he finally receieved director credit alongside brother Joel starting with The Ladykillers in 2004, and that Faris and Dayton worked jointly on Little Miss Sunshine for over a decade before finally getting the film made and worked together equally in making decisions on every aspect of the film.

Tandan, on the other hand, was the casting director who offered some input that ultimately Boyle chose to listen to in shaping his film; in short, she did her job and went somewhat beyond that in offering ideas that the director of the film chose to listen to and, for which, ultimately, he gave her this rather unique “co-director: India” credit.

None of the writers trying to spin this into a larger issue offer any proof for their argument other than Tandan being a woman, and the unnamed “Man” keeping her down. There’s no conspiracy here, and female writers like Huttner and Silverstein are writing ill-informed opinions that could actually hurt the person they think they’re defending. What ultimately benefits Tandan’s future career more? To have had co-director credit on a film that goes on to win many Oscars, or to be used by feminist writers as a rallying point around an issue that she herself has said is a non-issue?

Isn’t it just as bad for these female writers to use Tandan to spin stories that bolster their own agendas as it is for her not to be the recipient of the nominations they claim she should have? If writers like Silverstein and Huttner want to beat the drum for the lack of female nominees in the certain Oscar categories, their energy would be better spent writing thoughtful pieces about why Courtney Hunt was overlooked for her direction of Frozen River, which garnered noms for best screenplay and best actress, but not for best picture or best direction.

Exploiting Slums and Children

The latest anti-Slumdog spin has to do with allegations of Fox Searchlight and the film’s producers profiting off the people of the slums, and whether Boyle and the studio exploited the children who played young Jamal and Latika. Searchlight had to issue a press release the other day addressing the latter issue, clarifying that Boyle and producer Christian Colson had worked closely with the parents of the children, that their schooling was being paid for, and that trust funds had been established for them both of they that they will have access to once they’re 18, if they stay in school. As for the latter issue, Boyle and Searchlight issued a press release that there are meetings taking place around how much money will be distributed back into the Mumbai slums, and where it should go.

And Yet, the Spin Keeps Coming

This Los Angeles Times piece, written by New Delhi Bureau chief Mark Magnier (who, ironically is looking pretty darn white himself in this photo) broadcasts its slant right from the headline: “Indians Don’t Feel Good About Slumdog Millionaire” and the sub-head, which reads “The story of an impoverished street child in Mumbai, which has won 10 Oscar nods, is a stereotypical Western portrayal, Indians say, that ignores the wealth and progress their country has seen.”

What’s wrong with this piece? Magnier’s bias is all over this piece in his word choices. American audiences are “gushing” over the film; some Indians (which Indians? What percentage? What’s their income level? Do they have religious beliefs that might be affecting their take on how the film portrays India?) are “groaning” over “yet another stereotypical foreign depiction of their nation accenuating squalor, corruption, and impoverished-if-resilient natives.” Really.

You mean, they’re groaning because Slumdog Millionaire depicts the realities of life in Mumbai’s slum less realistically than, say, a glitzy Bollywood musical? Or are Magnier and those he spoke to, perhaps, arguing that those conditions don’t even exist in reality — that the police in India never use torture to extract information, that there’s no corruption, that police don’t physically abuse Mumbai’s countless street kids, that there aren’t in fact many thousands of such street kids running the streets of Mumbai, trying to keep from starving while the wealthy of Mumbai build bigger and spendier homes and ignore the blight around them? That street children in Mumbai are not preyed on by those who would exploit them?

Do they object, perhaps, to the film’s depiction of a street kid who rises above all that to win millions, but that in the end, the money wasn’t even what he cared about? And, while we’re at it, why doesn’t Magnier, who must surely know this, ever mention that the book from which the film was adapted was written not by a Westerner, but by an Indian, Vikas Swarup?

Magnier quotes a Mumbai film professor, Shyamal Sengupta, as saying Slumdog is “a poverty tour,” an assertion I take strong exception with. Slumdog is about as far from true “poverty porn” — films that show poverty in unrelentingly bleak, hopeless, and exploitative ways (see Brilliante Mendoza‘s Serbis for an example of a film that is poverty porn at its worst). The book Q & A tells a series of stories about its hero with flashbacks to key points in his life, a conceit borrowed by Simon Beaufoy in writing the screenplay; Beaufoy made the decision to weave in a Bollywood aspect with the love story thread that ties the film together, and the film is at all times completely respectful of the people who lie in Mumbai, and focused on the hope with which they live their lives, not the poverty in which they live.

For added (probably unintentional) irony, the piece is accompanied by photos of the “real” Mumbai. One of them, an aerial shot over the slums, could be a still from the film itself, though Magnier never mentions that the aerial shots in the film are, in fact the real slum, not some set designed to resemble what a Westerner might think a Mumbai slum looks like. One photograph of a child and man in the real slum is captioned, in part, “Many Indians bristle at what they see as Western filmmakers’ focus on India’s poverty.” Does no one at the LAT see the irony in slideshowing pictures of this very real poverty, while focusing on some Indians “bristling” at it being shown in a film? Who exactly is doing the bristling here? The real people who live in the real slums of Mumbai, or the middle and upper classes who’d like to pretend it doesn’t exist? Should films about India only depict happy, well-to-do Indians having expensive weddings and group dancing to Bollywood tunes, with the poor shown only serving them and not in the conditions in which they live?

The spin on Slumdog will, hopefully, start to subside as people move onto other issues, but the pieces and writers called out here serve as examples of the ways in which media will spin a given story to make the case that fits their particular bias, and the responsibility we all have to think carefully about the how we use words in crafting out writing — and the responsibilty we have as readers to look past the way in which a story is spun to see exactly what it’s really saying — or really not saying at all.

– by Kim Voynar

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon