Agneepath

[On the two Agneepath films, for The Mubi Notebook]

“I don’t care if it’s a lie, as long as it’s entertaining.”

-Rashomon (1950)

I thought there was much discussion going on about the depiction of slums in Slumdog Millionaire. I was wrong. There is much more than that. Much more than what is necessary. I spent the whole evening reading blogs of people in the US about the film. Blogs because I wanted to know what the audience thought about the film and not the critics. US because it looks like USA is being pulled into every other argument nowadays (including the British film Slumdog Millionaire). And almost everyone mentioned how they loved the film because it shows true love and not because of the slums. Well, all I can tell you that the love story wouldn’t have been loved if there were no slums in the film.

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City of God (2002) (pic courtesy: Michael Walford)

I adore City of God (2002). I can of course exhibit escapism and say that I loved it because of the narrative slickness and how well it was shot and so on. But the reality is obviously far from that. I loved it because of its violence. Because of its incessantly shocking images. Because of the sheer hopelessness it provides us. Hold on, before you label me as a sadistic psychopath, I’ll clarify my intentions.  Poverty, violence and misery are things that instantly repel us in real life but interestingly fascinate us when we see it in cinema. Why? Because of the security of course. These are things that both tantalize us and drive us away. Call it guilty pleasure. One wants to be in it all, soak in it and get high in a strange sense. At the same time, snap out of it when it hurts his/her personal interests. The solution? Cinema. 

The cinema, substitutes for our gaze a world that corresponds to our desires” runs the famous Bazin quote. Indeed. It creates the safe distance between the viewer and the world that aids the resolution of the above mentioned conflict. The same safe distance that tourists of India find when they “empathize” with all the poverty they see it at first glance. In our case, the distance that Boyle safely assumes while filming. So why does it hurt us now? Because we all know in one measure or the other that this isn’t exactly what is happening out here. We are appalled that the west thinks that this is the “truth”. Hell, it is crazy. Read this headline from The Guardian:

Danny Boyle’s BAFTA-nominated crowd –pleaser shows how blind Bollywood producers are to the reality of India

Rolling on the floor laughing? Yes, because we have been here, done that and know it isn’t so at all. Now, in the same vein, if I had been a resident of Rio, I’ll probably be cursing Meirelles and the fans of City of God for assuaging their lowly needs by harnessing what isn’t true at all.  

Take the case of our own films like Page 3 (2005) or Fashion (2008). I’m sure a large part of the Indian audience felt that that was all there is in the respective industries. But the people who are actually in these industries would be infuriated by the unwarranted sensationalism that Bhandarkar has capitalized upon. Any claims of the film’s firm footing on reality would be repudiated by them, naturally. However, these stereotypical situations that the film shows us do happen in those industries (or they wouldn’t have made it into the film at all). Sure, these are issues that plague the film and fashion world. But in no way, does it provide a clear picture of the industry. 

There is an inherent laziness in the audience and critics about films that are “about” something. There is so much to see in this world and it is only wise to spend a minuscule time to each of them. As a result, we accept whatever thrown at us that is about something totally arcane to us as reality. We settle into a comfortable position and mould the ideas we see into easy stereotypes for future use. This is not just the case of the west and Slumdog Millionaire. This is the general tendency for all of us, isn’t it? I still have one dimensional ideas about the politics of Poland or the situation in Africa. Heck, what do we all think of the holocaust? Do we even bother to think about what were the other facets of it? Is that a mistake? May be. But may be not. There is no obligation for one to delve into everything and know actually what is really happening out there. This particularly is true when it comes to escapist cinema. 

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Slumdog Millionaire (2008) (pic courtesy: Altfg)

And like Page 3 and Fashion, Slumdog does not completely betray reality. It does present images that are true and are really happening out there. Note the word “images”. Images that are consequences of momentary gazes. Images that present too shallow a depiction of reality to be taken seriously. Anything that is deeply rooted in reality can be only by a person who has been so personally affected by it that it becomes a part of his thought process (a la The 400 Blows). So, even if Boyle was deeply affected by what he saw, he cannot do justice to it so soon. Hence, what he presents here is nothing but images that have fascinated him. Images that he knows that would instantly attract the audience. Images that he uses to present his Bollywood-like love story. Yes, he just “uses” these images. No claims of depiction of reality can be made here, for the focus of the film isn’t that at all (even if he intended to). 

Now you may ask what’s with the cheesy title of the post?  I want to know if anyone found it as defamatory act that slanders Mr. Bachchan or Mr. Fincher. Of course not, everyone knows its plain silly. One that acts as a marriage of two worlds to produce a laughable (hopefully enjoyable!) effect. And this isn’t far from what Mr. Boyle has done. And I feel nothing especially wrong in that. The same is the case with films like Borat (2006). It might have been outrageous in Kazakhstan. But the Americans found it clearly funny as they found something that appealed to them (namely the East’s view of the US and their own laughable facets). Where Borat was unanimously deemed as a film intended just for harmless fun, Slumdog is being slammed despite it being one.   

Film critic Gautaman Bhaskaran notes in his review of the film:

“What is far more objectionable to me than this is the demeaning portrayal of India. Poverty is celebrated: destitution, squalor, beggar mafia and prostitution stare at us from the frames — magnified to distortion, glorified silly and used as tools of titillation to please the smug white world. Is this not what the developed West wants to see of India: its underbelly of crime and corruption that appears all black, dark and depressing with little grey or goodness.”

Now, I do hear that the film is appealing to the occidental audience because India is at the focal point of world economy. And that Slumdog is essentially a pacifier for the west to not get worked up on the country’s development. Mr. Bhaskaran says that this (misery, poverty) is what the west wants to see of India. I don’t know about the workings of the western mind, but I’m sure this is the case for all of us. I mean, how many times have we laughed at the mockery of the Chinese accent? How many times have we cringed at the epidemics of Africa and felt sympathy for it? Hell, how comfortable we have been whenever we call the western countries racially intolerant? So is this all that we want to see of the west? But well, these are issues about the darker side of the human psyche itself that we never want to delve into (our own “underbelly” if you please!).  

So, the film would still have worked if it were set among the slums of South America or among the settlements of Africa, right?  Yes, may be. But not as much as it would have worked in Mumbai. Because Mumbai alone has the three essential ingredients of the film – the repulsively attractive ingredient (poverty), the “change” ingredient (Mumbai’s changing face in the context of globalization) and Bollywood. As I said in my review (“It is a story that could possibly happen to anyone anywhere in the world – one of destiny and fate. So, why Mumbai? Well, Mumbai makes the possible probable.” )

And to close the circle, I comeback to the omnipotent opening quote. Everything that is there to Slumdog Millionaire, and to escapist entertainment in general, is summed up here. To use a oft-used cliché, Slumdog Millionaire is a mess. And what a glorious mess it is!

There is a very evocative scene in Slumdog Millionaire – one of the two that embody the whole film – Jamal watches a European opera being conducted in front of the Taj Mahal. The protagonist rues the loss of a woman holding her in his arms. Jamal doesn’t know a thing about what is going on there. But it entrances him for some reason. He is able to siphon the emanating emotion irrespective of the language, the setting or the form of the gesture. A completely Indian cast, A British crew and a limited release – there could only be a few more reasons for the film to go down unnoticed in the west. But hey, it happened. And how! With 4 Golden Globes and going strong for the Oscars with 10 nominations, Slumdog Millionaire has become the film that everyone is talking about – in one way or the other. 

 

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Slumdog Millionaire: Tender Coconut in Tetra Pak (pic courtesy: Rediff)

The story? Not different from what you have heard before. But definitely different from what you have seen before. As the title completely gives away, it is “about” Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a slum kid who participates in a game show and goes on to win the grand prize at the event. He is also in search of his childhood sweetheart Latika (Freida Pinto) who he meets after religious riots in the city. There are villains who try to stop him and some elements – human and superhuman – that help him achieve his goal. But why is this making waves all over? The answer may be – the right move at the right time towards the right direction. It is a story that could possibly happen to anyone anywhere in the world – one of destiny and fate. So, why Mumbai? Well, Mumbai makes the possible probable. 

 

Here is an excerpt from Mr. Amitabh Bachchan’s blog post on the film: 

“It’s just that the SM idea authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a Westerner, gets creative Globe recognition. The other would perhaps not.”

Why is that so?

Look at the characters that Boyle uses. Note their objectives. Could they be more stereotyped? Jamal – A lad who has grown with Hindi cinema and unconsciously imitates that. He is still the young hero who dreams of taking his sweetheart away from the jaws of the dragon. His morals are those defined by traditional Bollywood flicks – love over money, hard work and righteousness at all costs. The 20 million never crosses his mind as does the cherished idea of a “familial” reunion. Salim – brought up with similar Bollywood dreams like Jamal, but with a different set of films! The gangsta flicks (a la Drohkaal , Satya and Company) that make you drool over the wads of money that flow here and there. The sheer romanticism of pulling the trigger with utmost indifference. The jump cuts. The cigarette smoke and the all-hiding ever-cool sunglasses. He dreams of literally bathing in loads of money, till the very end (At this moment of the film, a shiver ran down the spine when he strikingly resembled Private Pyle of the chilling Full Metal Jacket (1987)). Yet, the urge to remain upright and undo his sins. And Latika – the Rapunzel of the story, resigned to her fate, fantasizing that a prince charming will come take her away some day. The arrogant constable Srinivas, the savage Mafioso head Javed, the one dimensional child trafficker Mamen – now, how many times have we seen them before?

See how Boyle employs the typical plot points to find a resolution. The baddie turns good out of remorse and sacrifices himself to aid the damsel in distress to reach the safe-space of the narrative. The quintessentially Bollywood theme of predetermination and destiny makes the lovers meet again. The inevitable train sequence that separates Jamal and Latika in the first place.  Ring a bell? Well, why Not? These are the characteristic sequences of our cinema (“entertaining mass oriented box office block busters” to borrow Mr. Bachchan). And look how fresh and unseen he makes it all! Boyle has provided the kind of new wrapper to the old sweet that the Indian directors seem to have traded with star power some point down the lane. Indians are masters at storytelling by tradition and cinematically too. But what has happened is that the craft of storytelling always played a second fiddle to the story itself.  And Danny Boyle, thoroughly soaked in the Hollywood-type craft of story telling, notes this. In essence, he bridges the best of both worlds – Form and content – to provide something so familiar yet not so much. A stereotype film with stereotype elements celebrating stereotypes with honesty.

There is a lot of talk going on around about the depiction of slums in the film and how the film is essentially a “consolation and titillation” device for the west. Claims are being made that the film is clearly Danny Boyle’s version of the Indian story and not the truth. Of course it is. And the sad thing is that the film is being criticized for that very reason. This is where I sense absurdity. Cinema, art in general, is most definitely an abstraction of the world that the artist sees though a kaleidoscope of his ideologies and idiosyncrasies. And its appreciation is one that involves its decryption and the discovery of what the artist sees, not what the artist should have seen.  Danny Boyle says in an interview to NDTV that when a foreigner attempts to picture something on a land alien to him, he must be extremely honest in his opinion. Indeed. When I started watching the film, I was afraid that Boyle would be quite conscious of what he is doing and would probably try not to breach certain lines. But gladly, he doesn’t do that. He relentlessly attempts to show what he sees. The child beggars, the riots, the guided tours. Once more, I take to Mr. Bachchan’s blog.

“If SM projects India as Third World dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky under belly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.”

Precisely. And that works the other way round too. Take Hollywood for instance. Though plagued with essentially American morals (beautifully parodied in Slumdog Millionaire at one point where the tourists offer consolation to the hurt guide, all in the “American way”), the industry has never flinched from showing the darker side of the nation. One of the most self-criticizing and self-correcting cinemas of the world, Hollywood and its associated branches have regularly treaded to their “dark side”, though unfortunately with considerable romanticism. Now, there is no reason for anyone, leave alone developing nations, to turn away from all the filth going on around. Note that all that Boyle has shown in the film has earlier been shown in Indian cinema numerous times, many times going unnoticed. But when Boyle, the unnamed representative of all foreigners, points this out – to us or the west, immaterial – our pride is hurt as if being frank (note that being frank is not related anyway to being true) is a crime. We argue that a westerner should not make comments about our country without even experiencing it. Now, I don’t understand this newly born possessiveness about our “underbelly” that hitherto was repudiated by “the commercial escapist world of Indian Cinema”.  If what this film is doing is slum porn, the behaviour of ours should be aptly called shameless opportunism.

I have a question. Zana Briski made an Oscar winning documentary about kids in red light areas – Born Into Brothels (2004) – that was hundred times more stomach churning than Slumdog Millionaire. Now, why was no claim made about that film’s portrayal of the slums, though by no means it projects a rosy view of the state of affairs? Was it because it was low-profile? Was it because only Slumdog seriously reminds us of the stale state of our mass entertainment, hence hurting our pride? Or was it because the facts were undisputable there and in that Slumdog, which is a work of fiction, they can be easily disowned? 

Having said these, one must also note that what Boyle has done here is not a consequence of frustration but of brimming hope. True, he does show the most shattering facets of Mumbai’s buzzing life, but he picks up situations that always have an outlet into redemption. Yes, it is typically what a  tourist would see in Mumbai. The contradictions, the happiness in spite of that and “the show must go on” attitude – aspects that residents would naturally be indifferent to. He never condescends on his lead actors. There is no sympathy for them. Boyle always films them from a downward angle.  Yes, he celebrates them during their highs, but does not go for tears during their lows. And amidst all this, he superficially studies the spirit of the city. Jamal’s win is necessarily an escapist entertainment, irrespective of the money, for the people who would go on to live their own lives after the show ends. All they need is a hero, which is a universal desire, who comes up from rags by the moral path (“substitution of their gaze”). Boyle’s film is an escapist fare about escapist fares. Slumdog Millionaire could well be termed as a crash course to Bollywood to the west – only that it celebrates the tradition honestly and in the right way. 

Sorry, but Mr. Bachchan again:

“The commercial escapist world of Indian Cinema had vociferously battled for years, on the attention paid and the adulation given to the legendary Satyajit Ray at all the prestigious Film Festivals of the West, and not a word of appreciation for the entertaining mass oriented box office block busters that were being churned out from Mumbai.”

Now, I’ve read a lot of support for the “Indian mainstream” cinema by people who claim it is purely a manifestation of the workings of the Indian mind and the West can’t possibly judge them using their yardstick. Now, once it has been decided that this type of cinema is clearly democratic (of and for the Indian people), then what is the need to expect admiration and applause from the west? Isn’t it being dishonest trying to entertain locals and requiring admiration world over? Here, in Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle presents escapist entertainment to the west in a form that they would naturally like (incidentally, being liked by the Indian audience too). Thus, it would deserve no more criticism than a mainstream Indian film does. But when it comes to admiration, the craft gains weightage and Boyle scores there. 

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle does Christopher Doyle all the way. The restlessly blurred events, the dizzyingly deep focus shots and the skewed camera angles are clearly adapted from Doyle’s features with Wong Kar Wai, but definitely suit this film too. Probably one of those oriental good luck charms!  I will not elaborate upon A R Rahman’s soundtrack as I have been deemed as one of his notorious fanboys. But seriously, it is nothing short of triumphant and a sizeable fraction of the film’s success. And the editing is masterful with snazzy and relevant cuts between the past and the present. The final sequence tops it all where we have three visual sequences intertwined and led by a single soundtrack. It is definitely going to be a tough call between The Dark Knight and Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars next month. 

I had mentioned one of the two sequences that typify the spirit of the film. The second sequence obviously being the one where young Jamal, covered in filth, celebrates after getting the autograph from the angry young man and the hero of this review Mr Amitabh Bachchan. Placing the celebrity above himself, despite of his own pathetic state. Celebrating life despite its own wishes. This is what Danny Boyle (or any foreigner who admires India) has seen in the country. And this is what he has honestly unfolded in the film, with significant decoration but no other hidden intentions. Mr. Boyle isn’t teaching us what to show, but how to show. He isn’t telling us how India is, but how he sees it. And positively, he isn’t showing us our darker side, but the brighter and more humanistic one.  

Verdict: