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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire - My Views

“A film which transcends boundaries of mediocrity while portraying the conflicting realities of an inferior universe – Slumdog Millionaire goes probing into the minds and hearts of the millions who jostle for existence in the dark crevices of Mumbai’s underbelly, nourishing dreams of a brighter tomorrow and a better deal from life and ends as a rewarding experience for all who decide to give the film a chance to exhilarate in all its ornate glory. It is a film which installs its protagonist Jamal Malik as a hero who emerges from destitution and homelessness to become a millionaire by virtue of destiny and little else. Slumdog Millionaire is a riveting depiction of harsh truths of life in an unforgiving city yet provides for the scope of human hope and love to thrive and blossom, thus, attaining its due share of greatness even without asking for it.”

Oh, how I would have liked my impression of Slumdog Millionaire to read like this. But no, my take on the film does not even step on the fringes of the above exaltation. That does not mean that my ‘real’ opinion of the film is the exact opposite of whatever is written within the quotes. In reality I found it to be a strange film which had enough cinematic cunning in it to keep me interested till its end. It did annoy, at some places disgust, but the queer mix of “all-that’s-Indian” cliché hung to it like an insistent moth craving for attention from the amused audience I provided it with last night. There are hundreds of detailed reviews doing the rounds in the cyber-space so I would not torture my solitary reader with specifics. I would rather put down in as less words as possible those attributes of the film which amused me with such unpleasant regularity.

First and foremost I think the film would have been far less ‘incredible’ if shot flat-out in Hindi. Seasoned actors like Saurabh Shukla, Irrfan Khan and Anil Kapoor look horrible caricatures of their true self while mouthing the average Indian’s Ingg-lissss. In one sequence Jamal, a slum-dweller since birth swears “Maa Kasam” in perfect phoren accent to his blind beggar friend who surprisingly knows Benjamin Franklin just from description. In hindsight one feels what a great relief it was that Surdas’ bhajan was not tampered with Beyonce-an wisdom to imbibe more cinematic meaning to the context.

Secondly, Danny Boyle, the now-acclaimed Golden-Globe winning director never misses a trick when drawing from the bag of The Great Indian Tricks Рthe one that holds all the hackneyed clich̩s and worn-out stereotypes that are associated with a resurgent India - A nation, which to the Wise Wise West, remains blissfully ignorant of the rot that ails the occupants of its vast netherworld.

According to the film:

  1. Mumbai is just a vast slum, complete with railway tracks criss-crossing their ways to reach VT. It is only recently that slums have started to make way for high-rises like “Javed Heights” under the supervision of the local mafia.

2. It is common for slum-kids to go snorkeling into shit-holes just so that they can get Amitabh Bachhan’s autograph. Hygiene? Human sense of self-worth? No, sir. This is India, where people are crazy about cine-stars and they would do just about anything to catch the glimpse of their hero.

3. Slum-kids are taught of Athos and Porthos from “The Three Musketeers” at school without having the faintest of idea of how the Taj Mahal might look like. Feigning ignorance of the great edifice, “slumdogs” are prone to mistake it for “heaven” or worse, “some hotel”. Globalization anyone?

4. One fine morning, there are communal riots without an inkling of suspicion or rumors doing the rounds. As a fall-out two Muslim boys (Salim and Jamal) and a Hindu girl (Latika. If that’s not an obvious Hindu name, what is?) get thrown in together to rue their fate and later, share their lives which are so inextricably entwined by fate. The lesson - Peaceful co-existence. Narendrabhai, are you listening?

5. Poor Indians are crafty little crooks who swindle rich gullible American tourists off their dollars, steal their shoes and pretend to be guides and ‘recycle’ mineral water bottles in their own ingenious way.

6. There are well-groomed, English speaking chaiwallahs who fill-in for their employers in Indian call-centers. Now Mr. Bob or Chuck will know the real reason behind the poor service that he receives whenever he needs help with his vacuum cleaner or dish-washer.

7. Mafia dons in Mumbai have mistresses for making unpalatable sandwiches for them and little else. RGV, your khallas days are numbered!

8. Beware of the jealous quiz-show host! Don’t win large sums of money to invite his wrath. If Amitabh Bachhan had pondered on this point he would not have been there in London promoting the film. After all he hosted our own “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” for real. Did he not? Any news of the winners since then?

9. Victoria Terminus is the new lovers’ spot in Mumbai. If you are looking forward to moments of pushing-shoving-hassling induced togetherness in the anonymity of a “spirited” crowd, here you go!

10. No film on/around/in/about/above/beneath/between/over India can ever be complete without the happy couple celebrating their reunion (in short – Destiny) by dancing on railways platforms, accompanied by hundreds of co-passengers doing their jig. Spirit of Mumbai? Naah, A Spirited India, I would say. High spirits at that. White rum, maybe.

I don’t have much to complain about the film. Its mode of narration- that of flashbacks between quiz-questions is a sort of welcome innovation. Some of the actors and child actors perform startlingly well. A.R Rahman’s music is foot-tapping, no wonder even he was surprised by the amount of re-touching done to the tracks. But inspite of all these virtues Slumdog Millionaire remains just a well-packaged product far removed from the altar of greatness or the praise of posterity. In its attempt to show-case hope amongst ruins it has turned the spotlight to filth and necessity, hunger and helplessness. Not that the India of today has moved beyond the grasp of these evils but surely it has moved out of their grip. And that is where the film fails. It fails in portraying the follies that are the bitter fruits of transition in any vibrant state and instead focuses on the age-old belief in Destiny and Fate being the only agents of change and reform. The avid film follower is bound to draw parallels from films as conjoined in conception and as disparate in delivery as Salaam Bombay, Tropa de Elite and Cidade de Deus – all wonderfully made films depicting grim reality of an alternate social setup in different countries, but Slumdog’s treatment of poverty seems prematurely poised towards garnering attention and awards leaving very little scope for cinematic subtlety to emerge and enthrall. It rankles to think how complete the film could have been with a bit of genuine intent, a slice of directorial integrity and a generous pinch of Life to it. But then, I believe a film on ‘hungry, naked Indians’, shot in English, directed by a British director, laced with intermittent Hindi mouthed by native actors help so much more in bringing out that desi flavour – that sure-shot ingredient to charm the Western audience with, win four Golden Globe Awards and pitch for the Oscars all at the same time.