‘Slumdog’ non-millionaires

Thanks to Marian Yalini for pointing out today’s article on the compensation paid to the two stunning child stars of “Slumdog Millionaire”  (so far, less than $5000 total, for a movie that is making hundreds of millions of dollars).

When I first saw the film and wrote about it here, I wondered what was up. The children made the film into the incredible success it is now; by comparison, the adult actors were far less compelling. But the huge power gap between the filmmakers and the children whose stories they were aiming to tell seemed like an obvious place to ask questions about exploitation, compensation, and the ethics of making art.

Now it looks like the media is catching up and asking questions about the story behind the magic curtain. Even assuming the filmmakers are trying their best to be fair, there is such a tragic gap between a liberal, First World idea of “fairness,” and a sense of actual equality.

So the filmmakers argue the pay was generous: for the two stars, 30 days of child labor was paid more than an annual wage for an adult from the same community (most do manual or domestic labor). Plus the kids are now enrolled in school, with a “lump sum” promised when they come of age, though their parents claim not to know how much money that involves. (No word on what the children playing minor roles, some of whom were incredible, were paid.)

But what about comparing these young actors’ pay with the wages of the people actually doing equivalent work — that is, the other actors in the film?  Typically the star of a major movie gets both “fixed” and “contingent” pay:  a certain amount up front, and a certain percentage if the film makes a lot of money.

Of course, that doesn’t happen just because the filmmakers feel like sharing their profits.  It happens when there’s a level playing field: when an actor, especially a child actor, is being represented by an agent who is skilled in negotiating his or her best interests.

That kind of fairness is a lot less likely to happen if the child is being represented by a parent who doesn’t speak English and is laying ill with tuberculosis under a plastic tarp in the middle of the world’s largest slum.

I feel uneasy about Hollywood and Bollywood for so many reasons, and I don’t quite know why but I’ve never been able to take movies as “all in good fun.” Maybe it’s that I lack the capacity to suspend my disbelief; I want to be able to believe what I’m seeing. It’s unsettling for an experience that seems so real to turn out to be false, not on a literal narrative level, but on an ethical one.

Today’s wee glimpse of the “Slumdog” backstory illuminates a truth about the grinding and relentless nature of systemic poverty in Mumbai and elsewhere, in a way that the film, with its glossy violence, only pretends to do.

Hetero-friendly film reviews: “Dostana” and “Milk”

Quick take:

Dostana“: Cheesy but fun fake gay film. 
Milk“: Well-made but slightly flat real gay film. 
Both hetero-friendly.
Slow take:
I recently received in the mail a copy of Passport magazine. Although the website calls it “The Insider’s Guide to Gay Travel,” on my actual magazine the tagline reads: “The Hetero-Friendly Gay Travel Magazine.”
What does that even mean?  Leave aside the utter lack of poetry and the clearly ineffective marketing strategy (please raise your hand if, straight or gay, those words would make you buy this magazine!) … here, in a 30-point white sans-serif nutshell, is the central dilemma of mainstream gay messaging:
It wants to be gay.  Oh yes it does.  But not too gay!  It still wants to be loved.  So even as it asserts its gayness, it must apologize for being gay.  Pride and shame, hand in hand.
Which brings me to our movies o’ the moment.
MOVIE #1:  “Dostana 
This is being billed as the first gay Bollywood movie. There have been some truly queer independent Indian films (“Fire,” “My Brother Nikhil“), but this is the only one to come out of the big-bucks, mega-stars industry that pumps out hundreds of movies a year.  
So the first obvious question is, Is “Dostana” really a gay movie?  The answer: Only if you thought “Three’s Company” was a gay show.  In “Dostana,” two hunky guys pretend to be gay lovers so they can move into an apartment owned by a gorgeous single woman. Of course they both fall in love with her, and drama and silliness ensue.
Like most of the three-hour comedic musical melodramas produced by Bollywood, Dostana is way too long by half.  Pre-intermission is much better than post-intermission, so feel free to leave after your popcorn or samosa break if you want. Over the second half of the movie, the plot gets increasingly ridiculous as the not-gay boys compete and scheme to get their girl.  For a queer viewer, the most interesting point of suspense becomes, Are the two men going to kiss or not?  I won’t give it away, but if you want to leave at halftime (or not go at all), you can watch a grainy bootlegged YouTube video of the climactic will-they-or-won’t-they moment here.
There are two actual gay characters, both very swishy, a magazine editor and (amusingly) a U.S. immigration officer.  Their portrayals, as well as the straight characters trying to act gay, are highly stereotypical and not for the easily offended.
At the same time, though, “Dostana” is obviously a film that had gay authorship and involvement in the creation. There are inside jokes and references to other Bollywood films and queer culture, and several precious, catty, subversive comments that could have only been inserted by gay (closeted? out? who knows) insiders.
“Dostana” has several things going for it.  It’s fun and entertaining, especially the first half.  It shows ordinary straight Indians having positive reactions to and relationships with ordinary “gay” and gay Indians, which is a step forward.  And the music is really good.
I think “Dostana” will leave a legacy. For starters, it will solidify the sexy John Abraham’s position as a gay icon. More substantively, it should open the doors for other Bollywood films to have increasingly normalized and authentic gay characters in secondary roles, and perhaps eventually in main roles.  It shows that a gay theme is not a box-office killer.
And most immediately, it’s given us a theme song. “Maa Da Laadla Begad Gaya,” which I’ll very roughly translate as “Mama’s Boy is Ruined,” rhapsodizes about the son becoming the bride and the mother shedding tears.  Though the lyrics are tongue-in-cheek tragic, the tune is classic catchy Bollywood pop. I expect to hear it at every desi queer party from now till the next millennium.
The song I liked the most was called “My Desi Girl,” and it’s about how Indian women are the most gorgeous ever. It’s so over the top that it’s kind of ridiculous, and it’s obviously a retrograde assertion of heterosexuality so that the movie won’t come off as too gay… but it still made me feel kinda happy.  (By the way, I can’t vouch for the safety of downloading songs from these links, though I’ve risked it and so far suffered no obvious adverse consequences.)
MOVIE #2:  “Milk 
I was really excited to see this film, made by Gus Van Sant (whose “My Own Private Idaho” was one of the most beautiful boy movies ever) and starring Sean Penn, who is G’s man-crush.  
First the good:  Penn does an amazing job inhabiting a completely different body and mannerisms than his own, without swishing.  The acting is really great, and the film makes interesting use of archival footage in an attempt to make history come alive.  It was great to see it at the Castro and then walk outside and be dazzled by being in the middle of such an important story.  I loved learning how thousands of ordinary queers, by organizing and coming out and asserting themselves, defeated the anti-gay Briggs Initiative in one of the first populist electoral victories for gay Americans. And I cried at the candlelight vigil at the end, lovingly re-created with hundreds of extras from our community, some of whom I recognized.
The film also powerfully shows the schism that still exists today between the assimilationist and radical wings of the U.S. gay movement. The argument between the “establishment gays” like the editor of the Advocate and the grassroots street activists that Milk organized is still going on, and was most evident in the recent No on Proposition 8 campaign, much of whose campaign literature studiously avoid the words “gay and lesbian.”
So this movie is the opposite of “Dostana” in a lot of ways: it’s faithful to real gay people, politically progressive, and … not really very entertaining.
The main problem is that there’s very little suspense.  Basically two things happen in the movie: In the first half, Harvey Milk gets elected to the San Francisco board of supervisors. In the second half, he gets killed.  Since it’s history, almost everyone knows both those facts walking in the door.  The job of the filmmaker, then, is to create suspense in character development and subplots.
That doesn’t happen, partly because “Milk” is so hagiographical that none of the characters can get very complicated or, really, develop.  Dan White, the killer, is wack from his very first scene to his last.  Harvey Milk is good, sweet, hard-working, and politically right-on from beginning to end.  The only person who has any kind of conversion experience is Cleve Jones, who goes from street hustler to the campaign’s main man, but even that is more a testament to Milk’s compassion in adopting the strays of the community than an attempt at actually showing a character’s emotional trajectory.  It’s as if the filmmaker couldn’t risk, in a mainstream release about a gay hero, to portray that hero or his allies as anything less than perfect.
Instead, the real transformation in the film is in the gay movement itself, which provides some excitement, though in a more intellectual than emotional way. Still, this portrayal made me glad to have seen “Milk,” as well as eager to watch the 1994 documentary that covers the same territory, “The Times of Harvey Milk.”
Watching both “Milk” and “Dostana,” I was reminded of what I once heard the director Frank Oz say about his 1997 movie “In & Out“:  “It was about being subversive while being safe. … A studio’s not going to give you $40 million for a movie about a gay teacher without being entertaining to a whole lot of people.”
At the time I saw “In & Out,” several years ago, I was really offended by it and by Oz’s “safe but subversive” claim in the post-film talk.  The movie didn’t seem subversive at all to me; it was merely safe, and stereotypical. The main character of “In & Out” is a swishy teacher whom everyone thinks is gay because of how he walks, but he says he isn’t. Tom Selleck has a cameo role and … well, it’s just really bad.
But this weekend, watching “Dostana,” I sort of understood how someone of a certain generation in a mainstream movie studio at a certain political moment might truly believe that that was the only feature he could make.  
And watching “Milk,” I understood how, before the current marriage movement, large numbers of Americans (think Anita Bryant and the Briggs Initiative) found the issue of gay teachers so threatening that perhaps a silly comedy was a reasonably subversive way to approach it.  
Still, even Oz expressed mixed feelings about his final product: “I wanted it safe, but maybe not that safe.”
And that might be why, in general, I like truly subversive and risk-taking indie movies way, way more than the mainstream versions, with their fiscally motivated, built-in, hetero-friendly, safety features.

2 bizzy 2 blog

This was a busy busy week! 

Last Saturday I did the film shoot for “Hey, Sailor” — six hours, sundress, cold drizzly SF night.  Ah, the glamour of the acting life!

On Sunday I worked about 10 hours on my page proofs.  (This, after a 12-hour day on Friday.)  A couple more hours Monday morning, then I was done!  This was the very last set of changes I get to make on my book before it goes to press. 

George came over Monday morning and we went to the shipping store together.  We watched our “baby” get weighed on the scale, and I made the guy box it up and tape it in front of me before leaving the store.  Sigh!  Then we went to Burma Superstar to celebrate.  I had the veg samusa soup which sounds ridiculous (lentils PLUS falafel PLUS broken-up samusas??), but is delicious.  (Hey lookie, I made a rhyme.) 

We strolled over to Green Apple Books to look for a copy of BKS Iyengar‘s Light On Yoga book, because it’s a required text for her yoga class this fall at SJSU, but they didn’t have it.  So we gave up and went home to take a three-hour nap.  (“A three-hour nap….”)

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday I worked at my magazine gig (Turning Wheel: A Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism) and we got the pages out to the printers Thursday afternoon.  Hoorah!   Another project nearly wrapped up; we get the blue-lines back this coming week, and then that’s it.  The magazine looks gorgeous, it’s a 92-page special anniversary issue, and it’s a bit sad that it’s only going out to members of the organization rather than newsstands.  Such is the economy of small magazines, though!  (The org, by the way, is the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a totally great, progressive, and diverse organization, very worth joining if you’re interested.) 

Also on Wednesday and Thursday nights I had rehearsal.  I’d sort of forgotten how physical the work of performance can be.  It seems like I’m just standing around saying lines, but somehow I’m a sweaty exhausted heap by the end of the evening!  I am absolutely loving the work, though, and starting to get a deeper sense of my character, bond with the other cast & crew members, and get comfortable being in my performance body again.  To do list: This week, memorize Act I.  Next week, memorize Act II.  Whew!  Another rehearsal this afternoon.

After all that, yesterday I went to the Kabuki Springs with Zombie Mom.  We had been trying to plan this excursion since her birthday back in February, but with both of our crazy schedules, here it is August!  The timing couldn’t have been better for me, though, after this week.  She’s a Pisces and I’m a Cancer so of course we both find it the absolutely most perfect way to spend a few hours — soak, steam, nap, soak, steam.  There is something very satisfying about the kind of nap that happens in a steam room, or just outside it, when your body is all warm and relaxed and your brain is on vacation and you just kind of float away. 


Then we went up into the Japantown Center for lunch.  I love that there’s awesome vegan sushi available pretty much all over this city!  I had a caterpillar roll — asparagus tempura & cucumber inside, avocado draped outside — as well as an ume roll (salty pickled plum!) and miso soup.  Yummm. 

And THEN we went shopping for the cutest of cute office supplies at the Kinokinuya Stationary store and Ichiban Kan, which is quite possibly my favorite little shop in the city.  When I was writing the book, I used to go there for my ‘treat’ at least every few weeks — an awesome place to do some quick retail reward therapy for under five bucks. I got very cute folders, a notebook (cuz I always need notebooks) with little dots instead of lines in it, sticker tabs shaped like ducklings, and a set of half-sized index cards on a ring, which I’m going to use to help me memorize my lines. 

Zombie Mom had to go back to work, but I had decided to take the day off (yay!), so I sat in the cutest little tea place and drank hot honey ginger tea.  I am trying to drink soup and herbal tea as much as possible because all the rehearsing is getting to my throat, and it needs soothing.  I also had some kind of delicious little sweet red bean bun thingie.  All refreshed, I then had more shopping energy, so I went into the downstairs manga section of the Kinokinuya bookstore. 

I browsed around for a while and then bought the first volume of the Buddha series by Osamu Tezuka, which I’ve been wanting to read!  I decided that’s going to be my treat over the next few months… every time I do a big task, I get to buy a new volume.  There are 8 total, so that should carry me for a while!

Came home, took 2nd nap until my cat woke me, jonesing for his dinner.  Read Volume 1, it was beautiful and moving and funny and made me happy.  Got back in bed, drew and wrote in my journal for a while, and went to sleep very satisfied with myself.

Today:  Back to work!  Class this morning (working on my business plan) — actually I’m late! — and rehearsal this afternoon. 

Tomorrow, George and I are going to my god-daughter’s 2nd birthday party.  Balloons, bubbles, and toddlers, oh my.