Truth and fantasy among the Slumdogs

Not surprisingly, “Slumdog Millionaire,” director Danny Boyle’s frenetic tale springing from the vast underbelly of Mumbai, swept the Academy Awards last night. The film was suited to the national mood, with its combustible mix of corruption and class warfare, despair and materialistic hope. The Academy has done worse in years past; on the whole “Slumdog” is an engaging ride, and at times an extraordinary visual postcard from a world mostly unseen by those in the West. The film’s biggest problem is a narrative one, as it struggles to reconcile competing forces of hard-hitting realism and romantic fantasia.

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The same might be said of Katherine Boo’s timely feature story in the Feb. 23 issue of the New Yorker, “Opening Night.” Boo reports from Gautum Nagar, one of numerous large slums squeezed around Mumbai’s international airport. Set on the night of the Indian premiere of “Slumdog Millionaire,” her story traces the fortunes of a 13-year-old boy named Sunil, who has turned from airport garbage scavenger (a primary trade in the slum) to scrap metal thief after the global economic crisis has pummeled the local recycling business.

Boo is an award-winning journalist who has reported extensively from poverty-stricken front lines, and “Opening Night” is a compelling read dotted with insights about the effects of globalization. Yet, I couldn’t help but wonder about certain passages in which Boo ascribes intellectual and lyrical qualities to Sunil’s thinking that seem to strain belief. In several scenes she takes us deep inside his mind:

Sunil still did not feel much like a thief. When he took a bath in an abandoned pit at the concrete-mixing plant, he pushed away the algae to inspect his reflection. The change in his profession didn’t yet show on his face: same big mouth, wide nose, problem torso. He was too small all over.

And when recounting Sunil’s thievery at a newly constructed airport parking garage:

The roof had two kinds of space, really. One kind was what a boy got when he stood exactly in the middle and knew that even if his arms were ten times longer he’d touch nothing if he spun around. But that kind of space would be gone when the garage was open and filled with cars. The space that would last was the kind he leaned into, over the guardrails.

From a writing standpoint this is the recognizable stuff of fiction, prose concerned foremost with thematic imagery and character depicted in the service of narrative. That’s not to say that it isn’t truthful to what Boo may have learned during what clearly was a devoted and exhaustive journey into India’s underclass. (According to the magazine’s contributor notes, she has spent the past 14 months reporting from the Mumbai slums for a forthcoming book.) But particularly in an era when the blurring of nonfiction and fiction has turned up some serious stinkers, Boo takes some intriguing risks with her reportage in this respect. We do learn late in the piece that Sunil was to some degree “privileged,” having been taken in for a period by a Catholic charity for private schooling outside the city. Still, given his age and background it seems unlikely that he would have thought or been able to express himself in such sophisticated terms, even to a highly talented journalist who apparently spent much time in his company.

The New Yorker has also posted a video montage from Boo’s trip, a rather striking contrast to the high-gloss footage that just scored eight golden statues.

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