Here is the short of it.
I did not like “Slumdog Millionaire”. Or perhaps I should say I was not at all impressed. Maybe it was all the hype, the Oscar buzz and the “It is soooo awesome” first-person accounts I have heard over the last few weeks that led me to go into the theater with unrealistic expectations. Perhaps.
First let us get the standard attacks on reviews one does not like out of the way.
Yes yes I am being contrarian to get attention.
Yes yes I am too idiotic to understand a truly great movie.
Yes yes I suffer from a third-world siege mentality where I am offended by anything that does not show my country in a purely positive light.
If we can now move beyond these, then let us proceed.
And yes. If you have not seen the movie, then perhaps you are better off not going below the fold (though I try my best not to give away the ending) if you want to “experience” without any pre-knowledge this supposed masterpiece.
There is a difference between clever film-making and great film-making. Make no mistake, Danny Boyle is immensely clever. “Slumdog Millionaire” is made as an out-and-out “crowd-pleaser” through proper audience-targetting which is done in the same careful way the Chopras target the lovey-dovey high school/college crowd and the Anil Sharmas target the uber-patriots.
This crowd-pleasing is done through punching together as many stereotypes that Westerners have about India as is humanly possible. People live in garbage heaps. A character jumps into a huge heap of human excreta and without batting an eyelid comes running out covered in brown slime, as if its the most natural thing in India, to get an autograph of a star. The hero, a Muslim, sees his family slaughtered by Hindu rioters and sees along with it a rioting kid (presumably) dressed as Lord Rama, in blue paint and with a bow and arrow in hand, standing as a sentinel of doom, an image whose indelibility in the character’s mind becomes a principal plot point.
A character is booked on the flimsiest of charges and then he is beaten black and blue in a police station and given volts of electricity.
What else? Let’s see.
Child prostitution. Check.
Forced begging. Check.
Blindings of innocent children. Check.
Human filth. Bahoot hain sahab.
Call centers. Oh yes most certainly.
Destiny. Of course.
But wait. Do Hindu saffron-clothed Senas not run havoc through Muslim slums? Do street kids not get taken in by beggar gangs and maimed? Doesnt rape happen in India? Are those slums specially constructed sets? Why do you, third world denizen, get so defensive about your own country? Chill.
Well yes these things do happen in India. However the problem is when you show every hellish thing possible all happening to the same person. Then it stretches reason and believability and just looks like you are packing in every negative thing that Westerners perceive about India for the sake of “crowd pleasing”. Because audiences and jury members “feel good” when their pre-conceived notions are confirmed. On the flip side, nothing disquiets a viewer as much as when his/her prejudices are challenged. So Boyle does the safe thing.
Let’s say I made a movie about the US where an African-American boy born in the hood, has his mother sell him to a pedophile pop icon, after which he gets molested by a priest from his church, following which he gets tied up to the back of a truck and dragged on the road by KKK clansmen. Then he is arrested and sodomized by a policeman with a rod, after which he is attacked by a gang of illegal immigrants, and then uses these life experiences to win “Beauty and The Geek”.
Even though each of these incidents have actually happened in the United States of America, I would be accused of spinning a fantastic yarn that has no grounding in reality, that has no connection to the “American experience” and my motivations would be questioned, no matter how cinematically spectacular I made my movie. At the very least, I wouldn’t be on 94% on Tomatometer and a strong Oscar favorite.
But then you say—Boyle is constructing a fairytale, a dash of Indian exotica, a love story. Surely he can take liberties. Make the darkness darker in order to brighten the halo around the hero and heroine.
Ok I get it. That’s why the first shot of Taj Mahal is through filth, when any other shot would have done. That’s why the host of Millionaire is shown heartlessly mocking the fact that the contestant is a humble “chaiwala” as the audience laughs with him in a way that reminded me of Amrish Puri, rolling his eyes and saying “Tu to gandhi naali ka keeddaaaa hainnnn”. Even though this kind of class-based running down will never ever happen on “Millionaire” if for nothing else than political correctness , lets accept it happens just to heighten the drama.
Which brings us to the main weakness of “Slumdog Millionaire”. There are way too many things you have to “accept” in order to enjoy this supposed “glorious celebration of exotica” , too many plot contrivances, too many loopholes you can drive a truck through that you have to turn a blind eye too.
Suspension of disbelief is one thing, after all movies are not logic proofs. But “Slumdog” sometimes gets so focused on the “scents” (excreta) and “sounds” (pain) of India that it does not bother to even try to make some of the fantastic coincidences look even moderately plausible.
But then again, as you said, it is a fairytale. Which means it has infinite license for taking liberties.
The thing is that the same people who are going ga-ga over “Slumdog” saying “Areee yaar, dont over-analyze. Dont see it from a realist perspective. Just enjoy the ride” will go and say “What! She cannot recognize Shahrukh Khan just because he doesn’t have his moustache” and ” Wait. Rahul Roy sings Jaane Jigar Jaane Man and just finds Anu Agarwal in the city of Mumbai by doing that ” and “Gimme a break. Sunny Deol can decimate a full Pakistani armored division with his bare hands and screams. What will these people think of next”.
The reason for that simple. Hindi movies are, by nature, downmarket and silly. English movies made by people like Boyle, even when they adopt all the conventions of the masala film, are not. Why? Because they have been validated by the “experts” as “life-affirming”, “glorious”, “celebration of the power of dreams”. So “Slumdog Millionaire” with its horribly cliched and predictable love story is a “monumental tribute to the power of love”. While Kuch Kuch Hota Hain with its equally cliched and predictable love story is “oooh sooooo bakwaas”.
Even with all the stereotypes and all the plot contrivances, I would have still enjoyed “Slumdog Millionaire” if it had managed to, at any time, transcend its “masala” origins to become something greater, as Oscar winners ought to. As the “Dark Knight” transcended its comic book origins to become a fascinating study of true evil. As “City of God” goes beyond the depiction of poverty in Brazilian slums (which is never its primary morbid fascination) to become an epic about the cycle of extreme violence.
In this respect, Slumdog is never greater than the sum of its parts. The production quality is top notch but then again even Ramgopal Verma’s turkeys are technically very accomplished. There is not much scope for acting. However Anil Kapoor, who is slowly coming close to legally becoming a werewolf with his ear ornament makes his mark everytime he unleashes his fake American accent, though you keep expecting him to say “jhakaaassss”.
If there is anything unique about Slumdog is its use of the millionaire game show device to further its plot (even though the links between the plot and the questions are tenuous and sometimes extremely artificial), which I believe is one of the primary reason why people get caught up in the movie. The same reason they get caught up in reality shows like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and get up and cheer when a total stranger gets a million bucks. However once one goes beyond that device, there really is nothing exceptionally unique to Slumdog, nothing that warrants all the hype and hoopla.
A big disappointment.