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.
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.