Monday, January 05, 2009

Stranger than fiction - Slumdog Millionaire Review

Guest Post by Saurabh Bajpai

Is Slumdog -

a) Beautiful

b) Brings the true colors of India alive

c) One of the best works of Danny Boyle

d) None of the above

No you don't get 20 million rupees for answering this correctly (yeah I know million and rupees together sound like a duet with Kumar Sanu and Ila Arun). If you are mathematically challenged as I am, then it means 2 crore rupees – Kaun Banega Crorepati Dwittiya – rings a bell? Only difference in the movie is that the show is probably both hosted and sponsored by Mr. India aka Prem Kumar aka Anil Kapoor. This explains why he doesn't want a "chaiwala" – a slumdog to win 20 million bucks. Didn't Anil play a slumdog himself in like 1000 movies?

By the time I started to watch Slumdog, the "Awsomeness" of the movie had already been fed to me through movie reviews, blogs, imdb ratings and even gtalk status messages of people. The reputation was already built to a point from where it could have only gone down. But what surprised me was that it didn't just go down – it plummeted.

When Danny Boyle was reading Vikas Swarup's Q&A he had probably thought that it would be okay to show an illiterate Indian speak in heavy American accented English – Obviously he did not consider making the movie in Hindi or worse in Marathi - "After all I am not Mel Gibson who can dare make a movie in the ancient Maya language that no one understands but the screenwriter" – right Mr. Boyle?. But then he came to India, did his research and got carried away with the tone and tenor of Indian way of greeting other's mothers and sisters. So now when the Mumbai police constable (Our very own kallu mama) hits our slumdog in the head asking him to talk, he doesn't say "Asshole talk"… he says "Bhosadike talk". The characters when talking in English still address "Maa" "Behens" in quintessential Indian way. Oh yes Mr Boyle I forgot you wanted to show real India to the west and to the Academy award jury – the India as seen by the great visionary "no one" named Vikas Swarup.

But then I will have to give it to Boyle for sparing the viewers the horror of a protagonist named Ram Mohammed Thomas as Vikas calls his slumdog (or wait was it Ram Mohammed Jain Batliwala Singh Thomas – Vikas should have been more secular). Of course this is not a review of Q & A and not a comment on the ilk of Vikas Swarup (though I will get to it very soon), so let me get back to the movie.

What is wrong with this critically acclaimed "thrill packed social documentary on India" ?

The problem is that the movie treads a very thin line between a "social commentary" and "thrill packed fiction" and ends up being neither. On one hand the movie revolves around Indian slums which makes every non Indian (and sometimes Indian too) stare at the screen with mouth open and gasp at the utter meaninglessness of life here and then on the other hand it showcases a filmy love story where a tea maker suddenly appears on a big ass TV show and claims that he is there just because his lady love would be watching this show. Yawwwn. The movie rocks you back and forth from the scenes where the director tries to educate his audience about India to the fairy tale of damsel in distress and knight in shining armor, of heroes and villains and sidekicks.

For example from a scene where slum children are running a makeshift public toilet for profit in a vast open field near the airport to the next where suddenly the helicopter of Amitabh Bachhan lands near the toilet and guess what our little slumdog – all covered in filth squeezes past the crowd and manages to get an autograph. (Now if you are the type who noticed the words "makeshift" "public" and "toilet" never go together when it comes to India then my answer to you is that probably Boyle didn't want to get into a controversy like V S Naipaul once got himself into by saying that "Indians defecate everywhere" – so palaces or slums – toilets everywhere J )

The movie is a pocket book compendium of what is wrong with India – the filth of the slums, the homeless children, child exploitation in various forms, crime, gangsters, prostitution, riots – you name it. This was just few too many of the evils of unforgiving Indian society to put together in one movie. At the end I get a wheezy feeling of having watched a Mehul Kumar flick (of Krantiveer and Kohram fame) which has like 100 villains – one from every walk of society from a normal babu to a doctor, from a policeman to a politician, with the only virtuous being being the common Indian Man – the aam aadmi.

Another problem I have with the Slumdog is that it lacks the cinematic depth that a movie of its "critical" stature should have achieved. The biggest flaw in this regard is the language. Why Boyle's Jamal talks in Hindi when a kid, in fluent English when in early teens and in English laced with heavy American accent when in early 20s, beats me. Is this the same Boyle who was capable of creating a vivid image of a scottish drug addict in Trainspotting who speaks in such a thick Scottish accent that to an untrained viewer it sounded as if he is chewing his own words. I can imagine Dev patel taking special training lessons for just saying "Latika" and everytime ending up sounding like "Layttika" and his lady love saying you call me Layttika once more and I am going back to Mahesh Manjrekar.

Just because the movie is meant for the west the characters speak in English – with various accents, they talk in terms of millions and billions instead of in lakhs and Rupees. The movie isn't free from silly goofs either. Example: A show like "Who wants to be a millionaire" is never aired live. Imagine a contestant taking the phone a friend lifeline and getting "Aap katar mein hain, kirpya intezaar kijiye" (you are in queue, please wait) in return. There are many plot holes that could have been avoided.

Having said that, the good about the movie is its excellent cinematography, which sometimes when coupled with spell binding music from Rahman, moves you completely. Like the long scene at the beginning of the movie where the policemen chase the kids inside the vast slums of Mumbai while Rahman chants "O Saya" in the background. The camera zooms out in steps to show nothing but roofs of rows and rows of 10 by 10 huts stacked closed to each other. The running breathless kids banging the windowpane of a car honking and slowly moving through the packed alley and saying "sorry uncle sorry" to the well dressed man in the back seat. And the subtle humour of the kids ending up in their mother's hands who says "bhaiyyaji inko maaf kar do". I believe this is the most vivid picturisation of Mumbai slums since Salam Bombay.

Net, a great effort but still short of masterpiece, still unworthy of super positive feedback and attention the movie is getting.

3 comments:

  1. a refreshing point of view

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  2. I believe he talks with a Brit accent versus an American one :)

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