Christina Patterson: Feel good escapism – for those that can escape

It is hard to celebrate a society that remains so profoundly cruel as that of Mumbai
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The Independent Online

It's visually stunning. It's gripping. It's Hoovering up awards. And it's the feel-good film of the year. Yes, if you want to escape the horror of a British winter at a time when each bulletin brings news so bad it would, if it wasn't you and your friends losing their jobs, be boring, then the answer is this: Slumdog Millionaire.

If, that is, the sight of some of the poorest people on this planet scratching around for food and shelter cheers you up. If the sight of small children without parents, meals or a possession to their name, crawling with relief into a drain to get out of the rain, is one to get the serotonin flowing. If the sight of adults teaching children to sing a mournful song, and then gouging out their eyes to increase the poignancy, and the begging potential, is one to set your heart racing with joy. A bucket of popcorn, a vat of Coke and hey presto! The perfect antidote to the winter of our discontent, the panacea for our growing panic.

There is, it's true, a rags-to-riches, triumph-over-tragedy, high-road-out-of-hell element to the film (and the novel on which it's based). And the tension in the film (very real, even though the title suggests it's a dead cert) revolves around it. Will the slum dog turned call-centre chai wallah (or, waiter, as he is in the book) win the quiz show, which he has, by accident, entered, and the rupees? Will he, in other words, win life's lottery? I think you can guess the answer. Exit cinema with warm glow. Smiles, at last, on a winter's night.

Well, perhaps. It's lovely that one of Mumbai's seven million slum dwellers has managed to escape. Maybe two, if you count the childhood sweetheart he plans to rescue. Of course you're pleased, after all you've invested – that roller coaster, that popcorn, those £12 tickets – that the story didn't end in humiliation. And you're exhausted, frankly. You've been subjected to the oldest (very powerful, very nicely executed) tricks in the book, the ones that know how to convert images and words, in particular combinations, into a cocktail of chemicals in your brain, a cocktail that feels first like tension and then like release and then like pleasure.

But, the thing is, the film did, like a great deal of our mass entertainment these days, end in humiliation. For the 6,999,999 (at a rough guess) human beings who remain in their slums, or their drains, or their streets, it is, you could argue, a little bit humiliating not to have anywhere you can excrete the food you have scavenged in privacy, or anywhere you can wash the dust, and excrement, from your body in privacy. And it's a little bit humiliating to be in a country which is, apparently, undergoing an economic miracle and still be living like this.

Sure, you can celebrate the vitality, and resources, of people who manage – God knows how they manage – to keep themselves and their children alive against the odds. Sure, you can celebrate the luck of the one in seven million who escapes. Sure, you could celebrate the miraculous metamorphosis of what the writer Suketu Mehta called the "maximum city", its proliferation of Prada, its growing reverence for Rolex. But it's quite hard to celebrate a society which, in spite of its peculiar international reputation for spirituality, remains so profoundly, fundamentally cruel.

The 40 per cent of Mumbai's population who don't live in slums have accepted, as the price of their good fortune, the 60 per cent who do. Most of them (83 per cent) follow a faith in which the belief that a sector of society is so despicable as to be literally untouchable is a cornerstone, a belief which, in spite of Gandhi's efforts to counter it, remains a cornerstone of Indian culture. This, in the largest democracy in the world. And of course it isn't easy to tackle poverty on this scale, but where there's political will, there's a way – and in India there clearly isn't political will.

Slumdog Millionaire is not a true story. If anything, it's a fairy tale – and, as anyone who has read the Grimm originals, rather than their sugar-coated, sanitised offshoots, knows, fairy tales are often cruel. Born out of a culture of dark winters and dark forests, they routinely feature threats of being boiled, roasted or fricasseed alive, grandmothers who turn out to be wolves, dancing shoes made out of red-hot iron, severed heads. Fairy tales don't just reflect life's cruelty. They revel in it.

We live in the age of the fairy tale. Eschewing the drama that is life transformed into art, we prefer, instead, the drama of life lifted straight on to the small screen, the drama of ejection (from jungles and Big Brother houses) and contest and humiliation and failure. And maybe this is just our entertainment, but our dreams are forged by the art (or what passes for it) that we consume, and our children now dream of being famous for being famous. We can't, it's true, know what the slum-dwellers of Mumbai dream about. We can't know if they dream of roofs and bathrooms and jobs or if they dream of quiz shows and lotteries.

Slumdog Millionaire is, by the way, a good film. It's a good film about cruelty, which distracts you from cruelty. But it's cruel, all right. Smile, if you can.