Maybe it's the work of a crafty saboteur worried about going 0-for-13 on Oscar night, or maybe it's unfounded. But whoever's leading the anti-Slumdog Millionaire effort may find its Achilles' heel in Mumbai.
The Telegraph today noted complaints by the parents of Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, two of the kids cast straight from the slums into Danny Boyle's game-show/romance fantasia. Happy as they are for Slumdog's success in the States, they're still wondering if their children got precisely what they're worth for carrying over a third of the presumptive Best Picture winner: according to the parents, roughly $700 for Ali and $2,400 for Ismail (for 30 days' work each), who play the younger versions of the film's characters Latika and Salim, respectively.
That's "less than many Indian domestic servants," reports the Telegraph, and in any case, Ismail's father has already spent the cash on TB medicine. Boyle has mentioned paying for the kids' educations and establishing a trust fund for each, and both the filmmaker and Fox Searchlight issued statements saying they were sensitive to criticism it had exploited either youngster; the studio even confirmed it would revisit their compensation. What's another $10,000 in the Oscar campaign, right? Especially coming just three days after another report cited critics of Slumdog's "stereotypical depiction" of Mumbai:
"It's a white man's imagined India," Shyamal Sengupta, a film professor at the Whistling Woods International institute in Mumbai, told the [LAT]. "It's not quite snake charmers, but it's close. It's a poverty tour." [...]
"These ideas, that there are still moments of joy in the slum, appeal to Western critics," said Aseem Chhabra, an Asia Foundation associate fellow and culture critic.
It would be an ugly claim even without precedent, but one of your editors last year ran into a similar controversy afflicting the Best Documentary Short nominee Salim Baba, which tracked a Calcutta man who made a living showing movies to slum kids on a 100-year-old Lumiere projector. Great film, went to 70 festivals, audience favorite, and for whatever reason, it hit a wall after its subject went to the press, accusing the filmmakers of the same bad faith.
The producer said the subject soon retracted the charge, but who knows? It didn't alter the film's chemistry, but for a doc short financed via credit cards, without a studio behind it, voted on by a small branch of the Academy, it very well may have upset the Oscar balance. Slumdog's scenario is magnified in proportion to its stakes, and maybe the parents are just greedy. (And even granting that, can you blame them?) But if an unscrupulous opponent actually wanted to stir the open sewers near the young stars' Mumbai hovels, the smell probably wouldn't go away by the time Oscar polls close Feb. 17.
In other words: You've come this far, Harvey. Do your worst.