A Slumdog, a Parasite and a White Tiger walk into frame...
I’ve been working on a post entitled “What is Inclusive Magic?” to explain the meaning behind the name of my production banner and YouTube channel, and to serve as something of a manifesto for my brand of storytelling.
The term comes from a speech I gave to my UCLA film school graduating class in summer 2020. Three months into the pandemic, about to join an industry that was in tatters, I wanted to remind my peers about the value of their art:
"We captivate and we share magic, whatever form that takes for you…But how do we celebrate beauty and light without ignoring or denying injustice?… I think that means creating a more inclusive magic that leaves no one behind."
That means taking the kinds of movies that enthrall, entertain and delight us, and making them more inclusive in terms of their characters, themes and emotions. It’s about playing with tone to better reflect the whole gamut of human experience.
Still vague? I’ll get to that explanatory post at some point, but in the meantime I thought I’d take my cues from US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when he said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
Three movies, two of which won the Best Picture Oscar no less, serve as a helpful jumping off point to explore one sense by which I use the term inclusive magic. Those movies are Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Parasite (2019) and The White Tiger (2021).
A Tale of Two Critics
What I said above implies a divide between movies that seek to entertain us and films that explore social issues. The former tend not to have much social commentary in them, particularly as they’re seen as escapism sometimes and explore emotions that we’ve come to expect from Hollywood movies. The latter films may focus on injustices and can be heavier, and they may adopt realist styles and tones that don't lend themselves to big thrills. To use movies about couriers as an example, it’s the difference between David Koepp’s Premium Rush and Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You. Obviously these are not remotely the only two kinds of films that exist, and this isn't the only way to cut the deck of cinema.
In 2009, two major film critics, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott and The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, had a debate about a nascent film movement that Scott dubbed “neo-neorealism.” Writing in the wake of the financial crisis, Scott lauded a spate of indie films about working class characters on the margins of society, often played by non-actors, with an emphasis on realism and “an absorption in the ordinary details of work, school and domesticity”. Brody was less enthused, calling these movies “granola cinema”: films that “cut off a wide range of aesthetic possibilities and experiences on ostensible grounds of virtue…[with] sympathy for ciphers based on their social position and reinforced by the downbeat warmth of the performers.”
These came out the same year as Slumdog Millionaire, which Scott recognised dealt with poverty but also celebrated “the magical power of popular culture to conquer misery, to make dreams come true.” I had problems with Slumdog. It felt exploitative. It’s a story about poor Indians written and directed by white men from a former colonial power that arguably had a role in shaping India’s poverty. The film painted poverty in India as an immutable fact, wrung tone-deaf comedy from the kids trying to steal food on a train, and ultimately told a naive feel-good story that was more for western audiences than the people it was about.
But now I wonder, wasn’t Slumdog doing what I’m advocating? Inclusive magic? Making a film about poverty in India that the world would actually be excited to go and see? Instead of a hard-hitting social realism film that draws critical admiration but otherwise gets ignored because it’s mercilessly heavy? And wasn’t it telling a universal story about the human spirit, showing its characters as humans with dreams rather than subjects of sociological study? I suppose it was. Maybe my problem was it felt inauthentic. Sure the movie shows some real horrors but what is its ultimate message? You can escape by winning a game show based on destiny? And then we can rejoice with a colourful Bollywood dance? The one time you show these people on screen, you do it in a way that comforts us rather than challenging us. Is that better than nothing? Nirpal Dhaliwal points out that the movie did more than Indian cinema was doing (and it riled some Indians up for showing the country’s dark side). It showed a “truth that middle-class Indians are too often inured to: that countless people exist in conditions close to hell yet maintain a breath-taking exuberance, dignity and decency”. That gets at the idea of inclusive magic.
"To serve a prince is like sleeping with a tiger" - Chinese proverb
One of the filmmakers whom A.O. Scott singled out as emblematic of “neo-neorealism” was Iranian-American Ramin Bahrani. His film Man Push Cart (2005), for example, tried to honestly and immersively capture the travails of a bagel cart vendor in New York. Fast forward to 2021 and Bahrani’s latest film is The White Tiger, an adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning novel about an enterprising young man from a poor, low-caste family who charms his way to being the driver to a rich family and grapples with the ambivalent emotions of feudalism-like servitude in present-day India.
The White Tiger knows it’s going to be compared to Slumdog, and it has a response to that movie. The protagonist says: “Don't think for a second there's a million-rupee game show you can win to get out.” Equally, the movie is a far cry from the slow-burn socioeconomic realism of Man Push Cart. It’s a Goodfellas-esque film (down to the voiceover) about an underdog’s pursuit of power and the choices he has to make to get it. Personally I found it riveting. The moments of injustice hit hard, but we’re buoyed (and later disturbed) by our hero’s determination. Bahrani told KCRW's The Business podcast that he couldn't have made this film back in 2008, because its distinctive tone that straddles light and dark, injustice and intrepidity, was something that he as a realist filmmaker couldn't figure out back then, and also nobody would have financed it back then. That shows how the last decade of cinema has been blurring that divide I mentioned.
A case in point is another movie to which The White Tiger is drawing comparisons: last year’s smash hit Parasite. Bong Joon-ho’s film is a Hitchcockian suspense ride with some farcical humour and it has protagonists we don’t normally see in those kinds of films, along with conflict and themes that are somewhat rooted in the dynamics that disempower and exclude them.
"Run away with me..." "And live on what?" "Love" - Slumdog Millionaire
Here’s a critical point: if you’re going to tell a story that shows injustices and uses them to play on our emotions or elicit our sympathies, they can’t simply be flavour that you then forget about; the film needs to have a coherent point of view about them. Student films about homeless persons abound, and they make us cringe because they almost never feel plausible. That’s also where Slumdog fails for me. It has nothing credible to say about the world it depicts, and so it feels exploitative. I haven’t read the book Q&A and maybe I’m being unfair in putting all the blame on the film.
I think Parasite and White Tiger do better. [SPOILERS FOLLOW.] Both of them show talented, resourceful characters who nonetheless cannot transcend their stations in life and ultimately they lash out with violence against their masters. While that violence in my opinion seems more motivated in White Tiger than in Parasite (the birthday massacre scene was the one part of the film that didn’t work for me), director Bong’s film ends powerfully by reminding us that social mobility was always going to be a fantasy for the Kim family. In White Tiger, our guy breaks out of servitude through crime—but since his masters got ahead by crime it’s par for the course. So while both movies have a ton of fun and give their characters a day in the sun, neither offers an easy happy ending, instead leaving us either wistful or a little uneasy.
To sum it all up: it’s important that movies of all kinds don’t shy away from telling stories about people in true-to-life disempowered circumstances. But they also need to make sure that the journey those characters go on leads them to a plausible form of empowerment, or where that’s not possible, that the movie is honest about the fact that they can’t get out of it.
Because life is full of contradictory emotions. Joys exist alongside horrors and pain. We can only hold one emotion at a time, but if the pursuit of unending joy requires actively pretending away the other stuff, is that not a fragile joy? For example, many so-called “patriots” think national pride can only exist by pretending away the shameful moments in a country’s history, instead of acknowledging both and working towards a more honest and ultimately stronger sense of self. Some people don’t have the luxury of pretending them away. The past couple of decades have made us so much more aware of what’s going on in the rest of the world, how we all connect to each other, and how much history we don't know.
I’m interested in stories that try to reconcile all the mixed feelings that evokes. It’s not about a “woke lefty” notion of stories that push an agenda. Storytelling is about moving people emotionally, not sermonising. That ultimately comes down to having compelling individual characters dealing with conflict that we can emotionally relate to, meaning it’s about universal aspects of being human rather than just class conflict.
Surprise surprise, I’m going to plug my own film. Because it'll inevitably be compared to Slumdog Millionaire and White Tiger. My feature screenplay Coolie Crusade, like those two movies, features as its lead a young Indian man from a poor family and low caste. He goes on a journey that ensnares him in servitude (a la White Tiger), and he pursues a magic external force that could get him out of it (a la Slumdog). His conflict is with colonialism, social inequality and dysfunctional family, but these speak to universal emotions of finding personal power and a sense of belonging. And the story is rooted in fact—a million Indians went abroad in the British Empire as indentured workers, stuck for years in harsh conditions but ultimately they turned it into empowering lives and new communities. Oh and the film is also an Indiana Jones-esque adventure (less rooted in fact). That’s what I’m going for with inclusive magic.