When I learned that many people see this year's leading Oscar contender, Slum-Dog Millionaire, as a "feel-good" movie, I was shocked and dismayed. The opening scenes especially were extremely difficult for me to take, to the point that I thought of leaving. Not because I found them offensive, but because I was so profoundly disturbed by the conditions that were so vividly and effectively portrayed.
As I see it, the B-movie plot twists, the unlikelihood of the questions fitting the hero's life experiences so closely, and the over-the-top "Bollywood" ending must be understood as ironic, almost surrealistic, commentaries on the absurdities and contradictions of life in India (and many other parts of the world) today, where so many different life styles, value systems, and economic conditions are so bizarrely -- and tragically -- juxtaposed. It is the vivid portrayal of this extreme culture clash that is the real heart of the film.
What kept going through my mind as I watched was Primo Levi's deeply moving and disturbing Holocaust memoir, "The Periodic Table," where every chapter is magically associated with an atomic element, in a manner very similar to the way the game show questions magically relate to similarly disturbing moments in the hero's past. In both cases an arbitrary device is used to give structure to chaotic experiences that might otherwise be too painful to deal with.
Picasso once said "art is a lie that makes you see the truth." In my opinion, Slum Dog is art on exactly that level. Great art.