Slumdog Millionaire: Creating Opportunities                    (pic courtesy: Telegraph)

Slumdog Millionaire: Creating Opportunities (pic courtesy: Telegraph)

There has been a lot of question raised about the recognition Slumdog Millionaire is getting across the world. And things have been made worse as people with no connection to cinema whatsoever have started capitalizing on the situation. Let’s set the latter aside as it speaks for itself. There are claims that it is because an Englishman directed the film that it has gone to such heights and had the same been done by an Indian, it would have been crushed. I say – Obviously. To be recognized, you have to be seen first. And bringing wide visibility to your work by itself is job half done. The gripe that such a film by an Indian filmmaker would have gone unnoticed is more of a scar on the Indian scenario than the West’s.

The content in films like Slumdog Millionaire and Smile Pinki is very much Indian and is clearly not out of reach of our filmmakers. Indian film industry,  too, is not short of great technicians and it could easily pull off similar films by itself.  The only and the largest concern is that of the big $. The reason that good films are not being recognized in India seems to be that distributors are not willing to take risks or even pay heed to independent ventures. The term “promoting a film” has been used extensively by the media and its importance never explained. Moreover, the films being promoted are mainstream biggies that already have huge banners behind them. On the other hand, the independent and low-budget ventures keep suffering from under-promotion This situation isn’t going to improve unless some angel pours in money like crazy, which is as likely as a coin landing on its edge. But what can be done is promotion via the hard way. One has to give a push to worthy works regularly so that it is lapped up by the rest of the world.

One thing that could help filmmakers to pitch their work to the world is a film festival. No, wrong – a slew of film festivals organized at various levels of governance. This could be done using a hierarchical setup installed across the country. Something like the  TV reality shows of today. Filmmakers get to submit their films at city-level film fests. Winners of each city get a chance for exhibition at the state level. The state level winners could then compete against each other at the national level and finally, the national winner could be made the official representative of the country that year. This would not only be a democratic choice but also one that encompasses a large section of films. When sufficient momentum has been gained from the previous wins, a film would evidently get larger attention. Even the ones that lose out would have been seen by a huge audience at the end of it all. Of course, the country’s film board would have to contribute a lot here. But if the filmmakers themselves could assemble some sort of “unconference” (that wouldn’t cost much would it?), the film development board has to just take care of the higher levels.

And most importantly, a really revered international film festival – a centralized national deal – should be set up. This one should not only advertise the above formed cream of the films from the country but also should prompt international filmmakers to showcase their films. Of course, it can’t be made at the extravagant levels of the Oscars or Cannes and needn’t be too. It could, however, earn a name for itself with its selection of films and the awards it hands out. Once this is done, the films would be automatically taken up for exhibition by other festivals across the world. And when a film is promoted across most reputed film festivals of the world, the Oscars would not hesitate to take note. Why not? What is the Oscar but a grand culmination of extravagant chain of promotions?  

There is a big problem here. I may sound like advocating that we have to work towards the Oscars. No. The Oscars are being widely recognized as the greatest recognition in film world, whereas they are anything but that. The Oscars are as vital as they are being considered, but not for the same reason. The Oscar is not as much important as a consequence of good filmmaking as it is as a cause. Look what happens once the Oscars are announced. The box office results soar. Slumdog Millionaire is back to the top 5 this week at the US box office. The DVD market would now be flooded with the winning films. Even the films that were snubbed by the Oscars, but given nominations would have a chance of making it big a la the Shawshank phenomenon. Distribution of obscured films will become fluid. And if this cascade continues, independent movies would be picked up even before the Award season and given a fair chance (True to their name, Fox Searchlight Pictures found Slumdog in the dumps and have created history now). Multiplexes will be used for the real reason they should be. And if the government is ready to push further, they could pass an ordinance where major multiplexes could be asked to allot one show per day to some of these award-winning films. This would significantly reduce the problem of distribution and film availability.

But then, cinema is not an essential service and all the above could be an exercise in futility. But one should also remember that cinema is a huge revenue winner and if proper platform is set up for international collaboration, this would only increase manifold.  For the good or otherwise, Slumdog Millionaire has become a landmark film in global cinema and has created a climate apt for cross over filmmaking. This is perhaps the most opportune moment for the country’s cinema to resurrect itself and truly find its voice. However, our filmmakers have to be careful about the most natural pitfall that evolves. They should not look forward to cater to an international audience now but to the local one, however with a keen eye on quality. Only then, we would be able to create a unique identity for our cinema on the map of the world. 


I’ll reserve the Jai Ho for then!

Naan Kadavul

Taming the Third Taboo (pic: Photobucket)

Bala’s Naan Kadavul is a stupendous failure. Its script is darn predictable. It is nothing more than a reworking of the damsel in distress template. Most of its characters are caricatures and exaggerated for dramatic effect. The final monologue is way over the top. Its shot compositions are weak and inconsistent. It glorifies violence. Its way too melodramatic for its own good. Rudran’s mother is a cardboard and her character, overdone. And so is the character of Thandavan. It uses music way too generously to corrupt its atmosphere. Its editing is way too jagged and at times too liberal. Don’t even get me started on the logical flaws. 

Phew! Now that all that’s off my chest, let’s talk about the film.

Bala’s films have become like the Cricket World cup. They come out with much hype and after years of wait. What we have here is a director who has “grown out” of the industry. Rather than going with the flow of things, we have a director here who seems to pave his own way. Very few directors have managed to become independent of the market demand in Tamil film industry, leave alone with such a minuscule filmography. This is one of the very few directors who get a louder cheer than the lead actor of the film during the title credits. Let’s face it, which director, even with the remotest idea of what sells and what doesn’t, would have the guts to open a film in an alien land, with a Hindi title song? Or to follow it up with an extended Sanskrit track? Or to use considerable amounts of lines in Hindi and Sanskrit? Heck, who else would have a lead character who roams around in his loincloth and speaks sparing and barely legible lines? Welcome to Bala’s world.

Naan Kadavul is pretty much faulty with its techniques. Arthur Wilson’s cinematography is weak and shows glaringly in the indoor scenes. His two-shots betray the scene and show complacency. See, you build up tension with the scripted scene and why do you want to drive home the content by losing the atmosphere? Not to mention the scenes in the beggar lair. The whole camerawork is politically incorrect, as in Sethu (1999) too. You never look at the characters like that. Wilson’s camera is always curious. It tilts, it pans and it tracks. There’s no problem with that at all, but the grammar it uses isn’t right. It keeps looking down upon its characters. And also hurting the film is the slew of reaction shots that Bala uses. This technique, fortunately for Bala, proves itself to be a double edged sword in the film. You see, a reaction shot in a scene of drama is a sign of weakness. It is as if the director is showing us the gravity of the situation without letting the audience comprehend it. And Naan Kadavul is filled up with many of these. Interestingly, it is the reaction shot that makes a comedy scene work. More than the comic line or gesture, the reaction from “the victim” is what highlights it. Naan Kadavul is filled with those too. Take the scene where Hamsavali advices Rudran to go back to his family. This could have been one sick lecture, but see how Bala’s reaction shots distort the tone of the scene from melodrama to comedy. Sadly, the former type stands out too. However, the handhelds work well outdoors and, I feel, could have been used throughout the film. And so are the close-ups. It’s been a long time since we saw a director confident enough to use the close-ups. Bala closes in and his actors deliver. 

Take the editing of the film too. Bala either cuts way too early for comfort or way too late for continuity. There are some absurd filler shots that are a sore. And some shots that should have been given a second or two more. Consider the scene where Rudran is on the terrace waking up the whole neighbourhood. We are shown a shot of the members of the family sitting together downstairs. They are shattered and helpless. There is a perfect distance achieved by the camera. And what happens?  Bala cuts away. This shot could have made much more impact than the buckets of tears. Again, take the scene where the second beggar group is performing at the police station. We see a constable stationed outside, timidly trying to take a look at what is happening. This is great satire. But how many of us noticed it. This is not our problem as Bala refuses to show that for more than half a second. What happens essentially is that the cutting betrays good cinematography and vice versa. 

Thirdly and most importantly, the use of background score undermines the quality of the film big time. With all due respects to Ilayaraja (whose score would shine as a standalone piece), I would say that the excessive use of emotional cues is a shot in the arm for Naan Kadavul. You see, the moment you have a violin in your film, you throw it away to the dogs.  That is because, by the property of their sounds, violins are very evocative instruments. Bala’s scenes have enough raw power by themselves to convey the depth of the situation. He uses excessive amounts of highlighting score that tries to tell you what to feel eventually making the scenes mediocre. Consider the scenes of Rudran’s return home or the separation of the beggar kids by the thugs. There is already much happening and pop comes the background score to distract us. There is enough drama in all his scenes, aided by good performances. Why over-determine what you want to say? Bala is a director who has as much confidence as does the title of the film, but not (yet) on his audience. He should have believed that his audience would understand the emotional gravity that he felt, without resorting to such poor tricks. Bala is a director who has never shirked from showing raw emotions. So why shirk from hiding it when necessary? Luckily, Bala’s films so far have compensated for the form with their content, more or less. So I’ll just stop there with a hope that all this will be completely corrected in his forthcoming films.

There have always been two facets, taboos rather, that have plagued cinema world over – sex and violence. Their depiction on screen has been much debated over and their use much researched and their responsibilities, studied. The world is slowly opening up to the former, but the latter still remains a hot issue. Popular cinema, however, still treats them as it did decades ago. The use and the meaning it conveys have never been questioned by pop filmmakers of the world, leave alone the Indian ones. Indian cinema has always shown gratuitous amounts of violence on screen and seemed to have no problems with that. But ALL the violence it shows is based on a single moral premise – good over evil – that we all have been hypnotized with. I don’t mean the idea of good winning over its rival but the definition of good and bad itself. Films as graphic as Thevar Magan (1992) to ones as mellow as Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na (2008) have firmly set their foot on this premise as far as their use of graphic violence is considered. And Bala’s film here, is no different. See how he creates the platform for violence by making his villain despicable. He imparts alarming one-dimensionality to Thandavan and resorts to shocking the audience with graphic torture. In essence, like the very many Indian films, he the sets audience’s mentality to consider violence as a optimum solution to the problem. And the ensuing violence arrives readily justified and as a consolation to the restless audience. 

The term “glorifying violence” has been used by reviewers very loosely. They seem to consider any film that shows considerable amounts of it as glorifying violence. If that is so, all the popular films from the country would be glorifying violence. Does Naan Kadavul glorify violence? Of course, it does. But not in a very different way from the other films of today. But does it have an impact? Bala sets up the situation for accepting violence, but would one actually go on to be influenced? No. You see, by the virtue of the character that the script provides, the film provides us an instant alienation from Rudran. Though it makes the audience support his actions, it never would instigate them to follow suit. Naan Kadavul, like almost all pop films, presents itself in a whole new world and consequently cuts off any of its justification of its actions in the real one. And the audience never carries on its support out of the theatre (as much as it does for its morals). So even though the film (and all films that have a stunt sequence) glorifies violence, it never can offer this as a solution to social problems. As a result, the film isn’t a glorification of violence as much as it is of our strong morals.

To get a measure, consider Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na. This is a film that is much closer to our world. All the violence shown in the film is a single punch. Now, the film presents Jai as a character who is brought up against violence. He sticks to it for a large part of the film even though Aditi’s one-dimensional boyfriend provokes. And finally when the film reaches its match point – Wham! Jai punches him to prove his manhood and his love. The audience applauds.  And since the film mirrors, to an extent, our world and behaviour, the audience reassures itself that violence is a good solution. It would very well take with itself subconsciously the idea that violence is a token of manhood and a good way of dealing with one’s insecurities. Now, compare this with Bala’s film. It oozes with gore and the gore is washed away from our minds once the end credits roll. This is what the world the director builds can do to the film and its responsibilities. This is Bala’s world. He is not interested in normal people. He is interested in the outcast and the outlawed. All the people he deals with are “strange ones”. Look how the “normal” people are indifferent in the temple scenes as they go on with their routine lives. There is much drama happening in the beggar crowd which they seem indifferent to. There is a Jai and an Aditi walking somewhere in that world surrounding the one that Bala’s interested in. And his success is his conviction that what interests him will interest us too.

[Video: Trailer of Naan Kadavul]

In Indian cinema, there is interestingly an addition to the two member “taboo” set above – that dreaded thing called religion. Our films have always alluded to it, touched it, gone around but have never once confronted it. The films that did deal with it extensively turned out to be one-sided duds like Velu Prabhakar’s films or Ramanarayanan’s. No film has explored how deep religion is linked to each one of our words and gestures. Hell, no film has even examined what religion means to the common man. Dasavatharam (2008) teased us with the possibilities, but stopped there. This is the biggest taboo of them all. Our Gods are a part of or daily talk. We make fun of them and we enjoy humourous anecdotes framed around them. We even spoof our gods never once hurting anyone’s feelings. But when it comes to serious discussion, on film or otherwise, we have never strayed away from our comfort levels. Our ideas about God are so complex that we never want to understand them. Instead, we stay in a safe zone but raise our voices when someone doesn’t. In our cinema, no director has ever approached the subject with honesty and without self-consciousness. That brings us to the strongest point and the raison d’etre of Naan Kadavul. 

Naan Kadavul is essentially a mystic rehash of Bala’s own Nandha (2001), but one done with more maturity and confidence. Look how Bala directly “confronts” the issue. This “confrontation” can be very tricky. One has to both make ideas clear and direct and at the same time never stuff them down your throat or be dreadfully didactic. Case in point, Chimbudevan’s Arai En 305-il Kadavul (2008) – an honest but one-sided film that could pass off as a “Sunday school lesson”. Though similar in its ideas about God to Naan Kadavul, it spoon feeds its ideas never knowing when it crossed its boundaries. Take Naan Kadavul. Look at its characters. All of them are like us. They talk about Gods, they make fun of them. For them Gods are no greater than film stars and vice versa. Hell, they are even dressed as Gods but never once take that seriously. For these people, Gods are just another way of livelihood. They beg at places of worship and consider those their “markets”. Oh, but they do believe in Him. Only that they don’t know why. One of the “saints” at the temple quips when another rebukes Murugan for praying regularly “Let him, Why spoil the belief he has?” This is the kind of instinct that these guys have. Not very different from ours, I should say. These are the people who could very well represent a large part our society.

And then there is the contradicting arm of the movie – the character of Rudran. Bala could have easily redone the rational-man-delivering-the-radical-ideologies act, but that would have been one fatal blow to the film. Instead, he chooses a strange man who claims he is God. This instantly makes us repudiate his statements and even ridicule it. As a result, the didactic monologues are avoided and even turned into subtle expressions of Bala’s ideas (The film is called Naan Kadavul and not Naam Kadavul!). Bala is perhaps suggesting this is how every man should be. Every man for himself. Possible, but he never thrusts that idea on us like Arai En 305-il Kadavul. 

The beggar people very well know that they need to make their own lives. Yet, they resort to God as a means of reassurance and security. Sort of Plan-B. What makes Rudran different from the beggar crowd is that he knows that weakness and acknowledges it too, but never calling himself an atheist or a revolutionary. In essence, the film does not make the audience hostile using a “normal” man questioning them, but one that makes it think. “Think” because Bala tantalizes us by not giving but by taking the ideas away from us. And this is how he confronts the delicate theme – through his audience. 

One thing that was running throughout my mind when watching Naan Kadavul was the Slumdog Millionaire debate. No other film recently has generated so much conversations and arguments as Slumdog Millionaire. It has been accused of “pandering to the western fantasies” and “exposing the underbelly of the nation”. Looks at what Bala’s done here. Not better for sure. Even the cheerfulness, hope and escapist mood of Slumdog Millionaire is lost. Naan Kadavul wallows in misery. But it is hilarious and we laugh at all the jokes it makes. Let’s take a look at what evolves.

Naan Kadavul presents three worlds. The first one is the isolated world of its protagonists – one each for Rudran and the beggar team. The second is the world that surrounds them – the “society” in the film. And finally and most importantly, the audience that is on the other side of the screen. See how the behaviour of the three worlds is. Rudran is self-contained. The second world, the one that is around him, is scared of him. There is great satire here too. The police chase away the “saints” that they know are phony.  But when a new one comes in, they are scared. They are unable to come to terms that this one is fake too even if their brain says so. He isn’t, but what if he is? They interrogate him with reverence. We know this is us – throwing in the towel when something seems to transcend reason and more importantly, succumbing to mass hysteria. On the other hand, the audience laughs at these two worlds. Only because it is where it is – the other side of the camera.

Again, the beggar-inhabitants of the first one are self-sufficient. They are occupied with their own work. They cook up their own jokes and celebrate them among themselves. It is a completely different world with its inhabitants challenged in one way or the other. Werner Herzog’s absurdist classic Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) comes to mind. Bala presents these inhabitants as norms and not anomalies. The difference is brought in only due to the audience’s perception. We see them as a different group. We indulge them knowing that we are “here” and not “there”. The second world is totally oblivious to the first one. They completely ignore the first one and carry on with their lives. They seldom hold a relationship to the first world and when they do, it is only exploitative in nature. And finally, the alienated audience that observes (not without the subjectivity imposed by the cinematic elements) these worlds from a distance. We laugh at the not-so-funny-otherwise jokes made in the first world. We condescend on these characters. We patronize them. We feel good about it. But once we are out of the cinema halls, we step into the shoes of the second world. We have our own hectic lives to worry about. So does that mean Naan Kadavul panders to the needs of the upper and middle class for those three hours? 

Yes, Naan Kadavul is exploitative, but not unlike every other film. Why! Pop cinema by itself is exploitative, for that matter. Happiness, for it, comes only at the expense of misery looming in it somewhere and from the reassurance and distance the film offers the audience. I don’t mean that we should exonerate such films. What I am saying is that one should not zero in on a single film just because it is being celebrated. What we have to go against is the culture that has been aiding to the rise of such cinema. But hey, those are complex functions of everything that has ever been related to a culture and are a part of a larger debate. And for our part, we need to be less sensitive about these issues I guess (I don’t mean irreverence). These things happen. So what? How long do we want to see perfect creatures leading perfect lives that we can only dream of? Not anymore, says Bala.




P.S: If a film can generate elaborate discussion, why not talk about it? I strongly recommend this movie.

[Edit]: I’ll be posting worthy articles on the film whenever I come across. Here is one from The Hindu today. Interesting, though I disagree at places. Mr. Srivathsan doesn’t find the film to be exploitative or manipulative. Here, I must clarify why I feel the film is exploitative. It doesn’t exploit its characters as much as it does the audience. It offers us distance and hence elicits from us a patronizing look on its characters. Ald this is the same way most exploitative films work. If Slumdog Millionaire was exploitative, it is in the same way. But that doesn’t mean the problem is with us. Essentially what is happening is that the filmmaker exploits both the characters and our gaze of them. And the artifice lies in showing them to be happy and self-sufficient. The exploitation would be seen through if the characters were portrayed to be regretting their situation


“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.

Michael Walford)

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. 


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. 



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.  


oscarYes, the nominations are out and we have an interesting line up dominated by The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire with 13 and 10 nominations respectively. The Mozart from Madras A R Rahman gets 3 nominations – two for best original song and one for best original score. He may become just the third Indian after Bhanu Athaiya (Best Costume design , Gandhi (1982)) and Satyajit Ray (Honorary Oscar). Incidentally, another Indian, Resul Pookutty has also been nominated for the award in Best Sound Mixing category. 


Here is the complete list of nominees (courtesy: IMDB)


Best Motion Picture of the Year

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Ceán Chaffin, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall

Frost/Nixon (2008): Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Eric Fellner

Milk (2008): Bruce Cohen, Dan Jinks

The Reader (2008): Nominees to be determined

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Christian Colson


Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Richard Jenkins for The Visitor (2007/I)

Frank Langella for Frost/Nixon (2008)

Sean Penn for Milk (2008)

Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler (2008)


Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married (2008)

Angelina Jolie for Changeling (2008)

Melissa Leo for Frozen River (2008)

Meryl Streep for Doubt (2008/I)

Kate Winslet for The Reader (2008)


Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Josh Brolin for Milk (2008)

Robert Downey Jr. for Tropic Thunder (2008)

Philip Seymour Hoffman for Doubt (2008/I)

Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight (2008)

Michael Shannon for Revolutionary Road (2008)


Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams for Doubt (2008/I)

Penélope Cruz for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Viola Davis for Doubt (2008/I)

Taraji P. Henson for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler (2008)


Best Achievement in Directing

Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Stephen Daldry for The Reader (2008)

David Fincher for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

Ron Howard for Frost/Nixon (2008)

Gus Van Sant for Milk (2008)


Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Frozen River (2008): Courtney Hunt

Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): Mike Leigh

In Bruges (2008): Martin McDonagh

Milk (2008): Dustin Lance Black

WALL·E (2008): Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Jim Reardon


Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Eric Roth, Robin Swicord

Doubt (2008/I): John Patrick Shanley

Frost/Nixon (2008): Peter Morgan

The Reader (2008): David Hare

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Simon Beaufoy


Best Achievement in Cinematography

Changeling (2008): Tom Stern

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Claudio Miranda

The Dark Knight (2008): Wally Pfister

The Reader (2008): Roger Deakins, Chris Menges

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Anthony Dod Mantle


Best Achievement in Editing

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter

The Dark Knight (2008): Lee Smith

Frost/Nixon (2008): Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill

Milk (2008): Elliot Graham

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Chris Dickens


Best Achievement in Art Direction

Changeling (2008): James J. Murakami, Gary Fettis

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Donald Graham Burt, Victor J. Zolfo

The Dark Knight (2008): Nathan Crowley, Peter Lando

The Duchess (2008): Michael Carlin, Rebecca Alleway

Revolutionary Road (2008): Kristi Zea, Debra Schutt


Best Achievement in Costume Design

Australia (2008): Catherine Martin

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Jacqueline West

The Duchess (2008): Michael O’Connor

Milk (2008): Danny Glicker

Revolutionary Road (2008): Albert Wolsky


Best Achievement in Makeup

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Greg Cannom

The Dark Knight (2008): John Caglione Jr., Conor O’Sullivan

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): Mike Elizalde, Thomas Floutz


Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Alexandre Desplat

Defiance (2008): James Newton Howard

Milk (2008): Danny Elfman

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman

WALL·E (2008): Thomas Newman


Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman, Gulzar(“Jai Ho”)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A.R. Rahman, Maya Arulpragasam(“O Saya”)

WALL·E (2008): Peter Gabriel, Thomas Newman(“Down to Earth”)


Best Achievement in Sound

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce, Mark Weingarten

The Dark Knight (2008): Ed Novick, Lora Hirschberg, Gary Rizzo

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke, Resul Pookutty

WALL·E (2008): Tom Myers, Michael Semanick, Ben Burtt

Wanted (2008): Chris Jenkins, Frank A. Montaño, Petr Forejt


Best Achievement in Sound Editing

The Dark Knight (2008): Richard King

Iron Man (2008): Frank E. Eulner, Christopher Boyes

Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Tom Sayers

WALL·E (2008): Ben Burtt, Matthew Wood

Wanted (2008): Wylie Stateman


Best Achievement in Visual Effects

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008): Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton, Craig Barron

The Dark Knight (2008): Nick Davis, Chris Corbould, Timothy Webber, Paul J. Franklin

Iron Man (2008): John Nelson, Ben Snow, Daniel Sudick, Shane Mahan


Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Bolt (2008): Chris Williams, Byron Howard

Kung Fu Panda (2008): John Stevenson, Mark Osborne

WALL·E (2008): Andrew Stanton


Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008)(Germany)

Entre les murs (2008)(France)

Revanche (2008)(Austria)

Okuribito (2008)(Japan)

Vals Im Bashir (2008)(Israel)


Best Documentary, Features

The Betrayal – Nerakhoon (2008): Ellen Kuras, Thavisouk Phrasavath

Encounters at the End of the World (2007): Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser

The Garden (2008/I): Scott Hamilton Kennedy

Man on Wire (2008): James Marsh, Simon Chinn

Trouble the Water (2008): Tia Lessin, Carl Deal


Best Documentary, Short Subjects

The Conscience of Nhem En: Steven Okazaki

The Final Inch: Irene Taylor Brodsky, Tom Grant

Smile Pinki: Megan Mylan

The Witness from the Balcony of Room 306: Adam Pertofsky, Margaret Hyde


Best Short Film, Animated

La Maison en Petits Cubes: Kunio Kato

Ubornaya istoriya – lyubovnaya istoriya (2007): Konstantin Bronzit

Oktapodi (2007): Emud Mokhberi, Thierry Marchand

Presto (2008): Doug Sweetland

This Way Up (2008): Alan Smith, Adam Foulkes


Best Short Film, Live Action

Auf der Strecke (2007): Reto Caffi

Manon sur le bitume (2007): Elizabeth Marre, Olivier Pont

New Boy (2007): Steph Green, Tamara Anghie

Grisen (2008): Tivi Magnusson, Dorthe Warnø Høgh

Spielzeugland (2007): Jochen Alexander Freydank



And as a part of this run up to the Oscars, I would like to present brief opinions on the films that are hogging the limelight this evening.  This will not be an exhaustive series by any chance, but will be trying to cover only the biggies.