Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire - The Review

Given all the hype surrounding the overseas release of Danny Boyle's film, I was left wondering when I would get my hands on it. Yesterday I did. So, yeah, what is my verdict?

I wasn't expecting this, at least not in this way. Even though I'd heard the story (like I said in the last post, it matters not if one knows the plot beforehand-- good films still remain essentially good). Not this.

No spoilers this time. None at all.

A few random thoughts that crossed my mind: first, this is a film that was aimed at the awards right from the starting frame (and seeing the Golden Globes, seems the arrow's hit the bull's eye). No two ways about that! But wait, so was Forrest Gump, and I love that one so! Yes, I am very happy for Rahman-- but honestly speaking, this is not his best. Let me, therefore assume, that this is what Rahman should have had long before-- for all his scores that bettered Slumdog Millionaire's and didn't get recognised widely. Mind you, I'm not saying this is bad: nice and all, just not the Rahman I've loved for so long. Two, if you pay attention to details, logical ones especially, then perhaps you won't like this movie at all. Right from the start there are obvious gaping flaws in logic: no television audience jeers a poor call-centre assistant on a game-show (and especially one as widely followed and discussed as Kaun Banega Crorepati, or maybe if you prefer this, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?) just because of his profession. Moreover, no television anchor, if he ain't insane, talks that condescendingly to a contestant on air, as low as his social or economic background may be-- this is national TV, mister, and one is under the constant gaze of both the junta ki adalat and the ever-on-the-lookout-for-some-spicy-story media. Flaw number one. And then, how do slum-urchins suddenly learn such fancy English (granted that Jamal, the protagonist, works in a call center: so what! And aye, English with a proper Amrican accent; take that!)? Flaw number two. Like I said, this is a film aimed at the awards. After all, we can guess that the awards jury prefers films that they can easily comprehend-- so bye-bye subtitles, as far as possible (the portions where they are present, though, are unique in a little detail-- we'll come to that later). Flaw number three: a bit too much of co-incidences, but that I guess is one of the best things about the movie. And finally, the biggest flaw: it is not quite clear how or why Prem, the anchor, deduces that Jamal is a cheat and betrays him to the police. Enough about flaws, now (though there are still a bit too many that can be named).

The good thing: Boyle's treatment of a disarmingly honest script that adheres not to reality, nor pretends to. If you are a wide-eyed fan of Amitabh Bachchan flicks of yore; yes, when he was the 'angry, young man' going through bad times, getting his ration of dishoom-dishoom, punishing the baddies for all the pains they'd inflicted on him in an adrenaline-pumping climax, and bagging his heroine at the end of the film (each one screaming HAPPY ENDING in your face)-- this is what you'd been waiting for, for long! Oh wait, the Big B does actually appear in the film, and what a delightfully repulsive scene that is. (In case you're wondering about the oxymoron, go watch!) Did I say something about subtitles before? Yes, maybe a minor detailing, but the whole load of enthusiasm and energy oozing out of every frame in the movie leaves it's indelible mark on the sub-titling too: they pop up in lively bubbles as the characters speak, instead of staying far away from all the action down under. The camerawork is fascinating and fresh-- remember Dil Chahta Hai?-- and does justice to the repelling yet adventurous tumult of the Mumbai slum-world. If Aamir used exactly the same setting to depict a dark, brooding atmosphere holding God-knows-what terrible secrets in it's womb, Slumdog Millionaire romanticises the will to live, even inspite of all the filth and sickening poverty. Not bad, that!

Which brings me to the final and most important bone of contention regarding this film: an issue that has been addressed in some blogs and internet forums I happen to frequent. The portrayal of India. Given the kind of skewed idea of India that some westerners still donning their imperial sunglasses have-- that of snake charmers, fakirs and derelict maharajas living lavishly as their subjects rot away (a bit of an exaggeration on my part here, perhaps)-- was it apt to portray that part of Indian society which is among the most deprived in such vivid detail? Isn't it going to strengthen the flimsy picture of our country that firangi-s have? Well, yes and no. Also, why choose a call centre, of all things, as the workplace of Jamal, our protagonist? Isn't that another stereotype? Deja vu: yes, and no. Yes, because it is largely true that India has both a booming call-centre/BPO culture, and one of the largest, if not THE largest, population of desperately poor people in the world. The problem is that it does not give the complete portrait away; and therefore inspite of being largely applicable to our society, it is not exact in it's statement of truth: hence, no. The danger of India getting cornered and stereotyped in the eyes of the western world remains: but that is a risk not quite as bad as the truth itself. So, even though I agree with both parties in the debate (and realise the ramifications of such stupid stereotyping), I refuse to join either.

So, your final question, I suppose. Did I like it? Should you go watch it? A resounding yes to both. This is NOT the best film of the year. Far from it, and far from intellectually rousing territory. This is NOT flawless cinema, nor is it revolutionary. What this IS then: a strangely uplifting tale of hope, fate, love and conscience (Salim's murder scene is brilliant, and that I must single out for praise). Go watch it. Your rationale will possibly discard it, your heart won't. This is, as a recent Hindi movie name suggests, a marriage that God decreed-- a union of the heart of 70's Bollywood (sans the cheese) with the technique and elan of Hollywood. So gobble it up! And take your pick. You either love it, or you don't. As for me, I do.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Couldn't help raising an eyebrow, Sudipto. You mentioned Forrest Gump. Now that's a movie I adore, hae watched many times, and would love to do so again. Are you telling me or aren't you that I should watch Slumdog... with the same kind of expectations? Because otherwise I'll give it a miss. As Khushwant Singh has said about books, I realise as I keep getting older how many movies I need never have watched at all, and I want to use my remaining time better!

Sudipto Basu said...

Inspite of having likened Slumdog Millionaire to Forrest Gump, mind that I never compared the two in terms of which is better. The similarity, as I pointed out, is that both films require a certain suspension of disbelief to be enjoyed. And, both were shamelessly aimed at the awards (not that it makes any film inherently unworthy of a watch).

Anyway, I made my point sufficiently clear in the post itself (my verdict was open-ended, you see!): if you do not mind a certain compromise in the reality-quotient of the plot and can turn a blind eye to the cultural stereotyping, this is worth a watch. Do NOT expect anything extraordinary, though. Good proletarian film, that is all.

P.S.-- Yes I do lay off the elitist in me once in a while. And, personally speaking, I like Forrest Gump a lot more.

Supra said...

From the time the movie has released I haven't heard anything else but praise for the movie.A movies truly speaks out about itself, the way its been directed and the way the actors has performed their respective roles.
The much created hype about the movie is what convinced me to see the movie and trust me the time spent in watching the movie was worth it.
It very beautifully shows how Jamal[the main character] relates every situation that has happened in past and gives answer at the game show.
I am not here today to give a movie review,you have already done that,Sudipto.I'm here to highlight a fact which happened today.Was just going through a new papers and I saw a person talking crap about the movie.

Ok his exact words were "its a Disgrace to Mumbai" For few seconds I thought the printing must have been goofed up and a wrong title would be given to the below matter but it was not the case.

Some how that person overlooked what the movie was based on and he started criticizing about how Mumbai is not only about slums and how the movie was a disgrace to Mumbai.

I am sure most on us would feel that the locations and the background was very apt to the story line unlike our very own Hindi main stream cinema where the hero heroins go to foreign locations to sing songs and blink of the eye they change clothes and move from one place to other

It made me infuriated.But deep down inside a cord struck me.I had read somewhere that in a survey it was found that most Indians tend to highlight the negative factors more than the positive.At that time it dint make sense to me.

But today when I read this it actually made sense,yes it is true that based on few examples i cant conclude that we think -ve.But if we look at the larger picture we wil find many people who give importance to -ve things.

As the movie name suggests Slumdog Millionaire,it is bound to have more contents about ideas and visuals near slums.Now really was that chap who wrote this comment in the news paper actually expecting that the movie would be shot in places like Colaba or Bandra,right?

Sudipto Basu said...

This issue of cultural stereotyping has been put forward because there is more than an fragment of truth in it, Supra. From what I've heard of Indian migrants to the US of A, there is a still an inherent tendency to bracket off all people from the Indian subcontinent as either beggars who've shifted to America in search of better fortunes (that includes students doing Ph.D.-s, too!) and terror-suspects. (Forget about Indians, is it not a wonder that the Americans never had a coloured president before Obama, given that African-Americans have been a part of their society since the 19th century!) Given this background, it is understandable that some people lament the possible cornering of India as a country of slums, unspeakable filth, begging rackets-- maybe catalysed by the widespread publicity this film is receiving. Not that the idea is a completely misleading one; but, as I said before, it is not the absolute truth either (which, the media-fed American populace will not possibly realise).

Sudipto Basu said...


May I request readers to go through the above post. Offers a refreshing and off-beat take on the film, and gets its point across very effectively. This is what I exactly meant when I used the phrase "proletarian film" in the comment addressed to Suvro Sir.

Sayan Datta said...

There are many important factors that go into the making of a movie, not least of which is the thought process and inspiration of the maker. From that view point, I do not think the maker bothers too much about the realism, surrealism or unrealism content of a film. He is just happy to give a shape to his thoughts in an art form he has chosen to. In any case, a good film, like a good book cannot be worried into being. Issues like cultural stereotyping, though important, are irrelevant. What I mean to say is that if a certain storyline requires a certain setting then nothing else should continue to be a factor. Salman Rushdie, in a recent interview said that an author, after a certain point, must let his/ her book find it's own way in the market. Likewise the film maker has to let the viewers and the reviewers and the social activists and the sponsors sort out the thousands of issues for themselves.
For the person who feels 'Slumdog....' is a disgrace to Mumbai, I can only say - he is like the student who doesn't find it improper to fail, but the teacher is at fault who asks - "Why didn't you study hard enough?" Similar accusations about Tagore were indeed quite prevalent. A blithering idiot had once claimed that Tagore wouldn't have been as famous had he written his name as 'Thakur' (the logic being he wanted to please the Brits!!).
For me to watch a film it has to fulfill either of the three criteria -
1. It must provide an entirely different line of thought; one that I had previously been unaware of.
2. It must reaffirm one or some convictions of mine (that is selfish, I know. If it is contrary to my convictions, I am most likely to discard it as unimportant), but with a certain degree of sophistication without being clich├ęd. The theme can be a perennial one but it has to be fundamentally enriching in a way that it does not seem repetitive.
3. It has to be open ended but also make a point.
‘Slumdog…’ from the reviews and the trailers doesn’t seem to meet my expectations. I know you will say that I cannot watch a good proletarian film with elitist expectations, Sudipto; but if I can go without watching a movie, I will rather not watch it. I will go with Suvro Sir on this one. And having literally watched scores of films, I can easily tell which ones I should go for. For instance I would have lived a perfectly sane and happy life even without watching ‘Titanic’, but I cannot say the same about ‘Matrix’.
The one film I have been looking forward to for some time now is ‘Australia’.
Sayan Datta

Sayan Datta said...

And regarding that line under 'Note' that you have written, where you have wondered whether you have any reader - I do believe you have many. Only that you write a little less frequently nowadays.
Sayan Datta

Sudipto Basu said...

Dear Sayan da,
From your point-of-view, you're absolutely right about the movie. Slumdog... has no new perspective to offer-- even to a story that's essentially been recycled and re-used scores of times. It has nothing novel to say and does nothing to enrich the viewer's philosophically or emotionally (and therein lies the gap between this and Forrest Gump). What it does have is loads of energy and enthusiasm-- one of the few redeeming factors of this film, and perhaps the biggest. Personally films like Aamir, Mumbai Meri Jaan, A Wednesday (all three regarding terrorism) and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (never mind the seemingly stupid title) all beat Slumdog... easily in the race for the best Indian movies list of the previous year.

But then, why did I review this, you may ask? That's because I precisely wanted to say that the film has nothing on all the hype that surrounds it. The review was only to dispel the disfiguring publicity that adorns a "just-good" proletarian film.

P.S.-- I wonder if I should start rating films...

Sayan Datta said...

Oh! That won't be necessary at all, Sudipto. There are not many who get their point across as effectively as you do.