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Does “Slumdog” Make a Fetish of Third World Poverty?

February 4, 2009

Can Western artists observe, imagine, and interpret “The Other” in ways that aren’t implicitly or explicitly denigrating?  A murmuring controversy over Danny Boyle’s Bombay epic Slumdog Millionaire has raised the question.  Chitra Divakaruni writes in the Los Angeles Times:

…the objection that only Indians (preferably, only Indians living in India) can truly understand the complexities of their country and show an authentic India… arises out of a misunderstanding of the nature of art. Decades of abuse from Orientalist writers who have objectified and denigrated India in order to promote an agenda of Western superiority have fostered this mind-set.

But the world is different now. It has moved past colonialism — and even post-colonialism, I dare say — into globalism. It is a world in which we can know more about each other — and hear each other’s uncensored voices. Thus, it is now far more possible for artists, regardless of their race, to create a valid representation of a culture, if they have done their homework and are passionate about portraying the truth as they see it.

[more here]

That argument may seem a little glib to those who embrace the dominant academic paradigm established by Edward Said.  But just as scholars have begun to chip away at the edifice of Said’s theories of Orientalism, artists–visual, literary, and cinematic–have continued to circumvent historical and national barriers.  I’d like to think that, as a notorious Westerm classical music fan himself, Edward Said would be gladdened by a more confident and respectful globalism among artists.

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