This blog contains material I wrote and posted on multiply.com between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).
Saturday, 24 November 2012
Slumdog Millionaire: Review
When do you know, beyond question, that the film you’re watching is a bad film – yet not so bad a film that you’re forced to walk out of the theatre/switch channels/take out the DVD from the player? Well, one indicator is if you find yourself taking notes of all the things that are wrong with the film. An even clearer indicator is if the number of things wrong is so great that somewhere around the midpoint you give up taking those notes – but you still keep watching till the end.
As I’m writing this, it’s still not clear if “Slumdog Millionaire” will win any Oscars. I think it might, for reasons I shall explain in a moment, though I would much rather it didn’t. But first let’s just go over the film and a few of the things that are wrong with it:
The storyline, if you are among the few people who haven’t at least read of it yet, is like this: on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” (“Kaun Banega Crorepati”, for some reason called – inaccurately - by the original British title; it ought to be “ten-millionaire” if you want it accurately rendered in English), a young man working as a tea-boy in a call centre who somehow or other makes the grade to appear on the show somehow, magically, can answer all the questions put to him. The sleazy game show host (played by Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor) sets out to humiliate him in front of the cameras to the appreciative titters of the audience, tries to make him lose (by feeding him the wrong answer during a restroom break), and, when that fails, calls the cops on him for cheating.
Brutally beaten in custody, and interrogated by a sadistic police inspector, the tea-boy (Jamal Malik) explains, question by question, how the events of his life helped him answer the questions he was asked in the game show. He speaks of his upbringing in a slum somewhere close to an airport, so close indeed that his friends and he can apparently play cricket on the runways, and of the communal riots that took his family and forced his brother and him, along with an orphan named Latika out into the world of crime and prostitution and the like. At the end of it the policeman is convinced of his innocence and releases him to the final question, which he answers correctly and walks off into the night, his girl on his arm.
I should have mentioned that one infallible marker of a bad film is the starting premise itself being faulty. Any game show host with an underdog participant in the hot seat knows exactly what to do with him: the idea is NOT to humiliate him, NOT to insult him, NOT to try to make him lose – but to be encouraging and friendly. The audience will ALWAYS be with the underdog; needling him will only turn the audience against you, and a game show host – any game show host – knows which side his bread is buttered; or should. And in any case it’s not the game show host who pays the winner out of his own pocket, so how the hell does it matter to him whether the man wins or loses? Why should he try to sabotage him by feeding him the wrong answer? Why call in the police? Does the police have, in any case, nothing better to do than take up this sort of stuff? If one can prove, indeed, that the man has cheated, why not simply throw him off the show? It makes no sense.
This is only one of the many things that make no sense. Some other things that you must swallow, if you want to enjoy this film uncritically, include these:
That a game show in India (which in reality was always made in Hindi and not English, except for specific phrases) uses “millions” instead of “lakhs” ( 1 lakh = 100,000)and “crores” (1 crore = 100 lakh = 10 million) to denote amounts. Indians never use “hundreds of thousands” or “millions” unless they are like me and deliberately and consciously use them for such purposes as this blog. In everyday usage even I would never use anything but “lakhs” or “crores”;
The idea that a slum school, where the children, in reality, would be doing well to be able to learn how to write their own names, teaches them Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers”, and that in English;
That police interrogations are carried out in English, with the interrogated man speaking in British-accented tones, and the police inspector speaking to his greasy and obese subordinate in English as well;
That a Bollywood actor, in this case Amitabh “Vomitup Bachpan” Bachchan (who, very ironically and for reasons of his own, diametrically opposed to mine, trashed this film on his blog) can helicopter to a slum and sign autographs, in this case for a kid covered with faeces who wouldn’t be, in the real world, likely to know what an autograph is;
That a Hindunazi mob can appear out of nowhere, with no prior tension or preliminary violence, to carry out an anti-Muslim pogrom in the heart of the city, with people walking along calmly on the streets a little distance away;
That slums can be cleared and skyscrapers built where they were just like that. This might seem logical to those who don’t know Indian slums; but Indian slums are always built on land owned by the government. Slum clearance is usually done after much court wrangling, interference by politicians, and finally by sending in the bulldozers, and the people are ordered to move to some “resettlement colony” far away. After a few weeks they inevitably drift back and the slum comes up again;
That an orphanage can operate openly as a beggar and child prostitute recruitment centre, and nobody notices. I know this is India, but this beggars belief, if you’ll pardon the pun. While watching this bit I kept having a vision of the western paedophiles who keep getting arrested in India every now and then. I wondered why the only whites in the film were bemused onlookers turned do-gooders. Well, it’s made for a Western audience after all, as will become evident in due course. And apparently your eyes can be gouged out with a spoon, but afterwards those eyes seem quite intact but for a few scars on your upper cheeks. Uh, well...
That a woman can be kidnapped by a gang of goons in broad daylight in the middle of a busy train station teeming with people, and nobody tries to stop the abduction or even seems to take a second look...
(It was at that point that I gave up taking notes of particulars wrong with the film; so let’s get on with more general defects: )
The characters, except for the lead, Jamal Malik (the appallingly miscast British actor Dev Patel) are cardboard. His brother Salim is the archetypal gangster with the heart of gold, who sacrifices himself for his brother when the chips are down. His childhood companion turned girlfriend Latika (Frieda Pinto, to whose head, going by recent celebrity gossip, fame seems to have gone like a hurricane) has maybe eleven lines all told in the film, and apparently has no spine to speak of; she’s the damsel in distress whose only contribution is to look pretty and helpless, and who, when she can’t even help her Jamal answer the Big Question, only says “I don’t know, Jamal”, with nary a tear or tremble in her voice. Even as a child the Latika character lacks the spunk to push her way in with the brothers Malik into shelter; all she does is wait, ragged and barefoot, in the rain until Jamal invites her in. Apparently on the verge of being raped by Salim, who’s just thrown Jamal out of the room at gunpoint, if she raises a word of protest, we don’t get to know of it. And so forth. The rest of the cast fits their assigned roles, no more. Even the normally competent Irrfan Khan, playing the policeman, who somehow seems to get more clean-shaven and less rumpled as the interrogation progresses, is unidimensional.
Of course this film has attracted a hell of a lot of attention in India, though its performance at the box-office was dismal. I am, in any case so tired of newspaper articles discussing the flick that I’ve begun ignoring any headline with “Slumdog” in it. But the discussion hinges on two extremes – those who love this film and those who hate it. (If the film does win any Oscars, some of the haters and fence sitters will switch overnight to the lovers’ camp, I can assure you.) Those that love this film are straightforward: “Oh, what marvellous acting! And it’s all about the poor, too! What realism!” (REALISM? It’s just a feel-good boy-wins-girl film, no more!)
The reactions among the haters are more complex. Most of them, like the aforementioned Vomitup Bachpan, belong to the capitalist class who believe, or wish to make others believe that they believe, in the myth of the Emerging India. For these people the poor do not exist; any reminder that they do exist is a personal affront. Therefore the film is bad, or at least made by people jealous of India’s enormous success (WHAT success?) and meant to malign India. And there are those like me who simply see it as a rehash of a Bollywood film, telling an oft-told story and not too well at that.
Then there are those who oppose the film for their own, other reasons – the family of one Gopal Nepali, who penned lyrics for the Hindi film industry in the mid-twentieth century, for instance. Nepali wrote a song for some film or other which ended up as a question on this quiz – yet all the four choices of answer were wrong, none of them mentioning Nepali; so, of course, the answer given by Jamal (Surdas) was also wrong. There are the publicity-mongers who want to squeeze publicity out of everything, in this case the word “Slumdog” in the title, which they say insults slum dwellers. And there are the politicians who seek publicity by supporting them.
While watching this film I always had the feeling that this was being made for a Western audience by people whose only concern was to satisfy every stereotyped notion about Indian slums and India. I could see them trying to remember half-read magazine articles and going so: “Uh, wasn’t there some case where a kid was maimed to become a beggar?” And “Yes, and I sort of remember reading somewhere about some fanatics burning and killing Muslims while the police did nothing.” So the first guy goes “OK, so let’s bung ‘em in.” I’m surprised, frankly, that nobody included a bit about some girl being splashed with acid by a jilted suitor, though they did have Latika’s temple slashed as a “punishment”. I’m not really surprised it bombed in India. I’d have been surprised if it had succeeded.
Another thing that kept going through my mind while watching this was a comparison to that great film on the Rio de Janeiro slums, “City of God”. “City of God” is as realistic as it gets, including the futility of its mindless violence and the fact that every good intention gets corrupted along the way, and the many layers and the complexity of its characters. Compared to that, “Slumdog” is a cardboard cutout in itself, with a little tinsel and paint substituting for a genuine story.
All of which probably won’t stop it from getting one Oscar or more. The makers knew their audience, and the market is all that matters.
I’m giving it two stars. The second star is only because it mentions the Indian underclass, the very real majority of Emerging Superpower India, even though it miscasts and misrepresents them. There’s nothing else in it to boast about.