Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

The trick (for me) in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was to spot the join in the fusion of author Vikas Swarup’s idea of India and director Danny Boyle’s idea of India. You’d think, wouldn’t you?, that the gap between the two would have been pretty wide. After all, how could Danny Boyle (a guy from Manchester) know India in the way that Swarup does?

Fact is, though, it’s amazing how Indian the film feels. It’s not just that the boys speak in Hindi (with sub-titles) in the movie, or that there is a funny, imaginary Bollywood-style dance sequence at the end (the first real reference to Bollywood), but that Danny Boyle seems to have picked up, somehow, an empathy for the country he is depicting.

Maybe I’m over-stating it, but think how Slumdog echoes the attitudes in films in the present Indian film industry. Plots in films like say, Chak De, or Black, are sophisticated without being deep, and also build through setbacks to the ultimate feel-good catharsis. So does Slumdog.

Also, Boyle doesn’t make the big mistake that most Westerners do, about Mumbai, and Dharavi especially, of seeing poverty as meaning degradation. Most Mumbaikers I know (outside those in Government service, who just seem depressed most of the time!) are too busy trying to come up with the next Great Idea To Make Money to be wallowing in despair.

And Boyle also gets beauty right; there is so much beauty in children, in women, and even in men. This is not being patronising – this is a fact of Mumbai. Yep, the place has decay in its bones, but life is vigorous.
The train sequences are genius too. Somehow Danny Boyle seems to have instinctively realised that trains are a centre-point of existence in Mumbai… he just gets it! They are a public arena, where everything human takes place; they are sort-of like mobile public squares into which we all wander, and sit, and chat, an d eat, and sleep.

So, is it a film I recommend? Yes, I do, wholeheartedly.
Okay, it’s not very profound, there are no life-changing moral insights, and there are some scenes which are lack truthfulness even for fiction (I just don’t believe any Americans are as stupid as the ones in the Taj Mahal sequences, which makes the scenes an easy pop at America – it’s just for very cheap laughs I think) – but… for the fact that it will make the real India accessible to western audiences, I applaud it.


So, off-line, were there are any other aspects which just caught my eye?

Yes (bet you guessed there would be, huh?).

* Muslim Mumbai. What a lot of Western audiences won’t get is that Jamal and Salim, the two brothers, are Muslim in what is a predominantly Hindu city. Muslims make up a sizeable minority In Mumbai, and do well on many business and career levels, but, the bottom–line is that they are very often the poorest and most discriminated against in the city. In fact, one of the first scenes in the movie shows the tiny brothers’ parents being slaughtered in anti-Muslim riots – I would guess (I haven’t read Swarup’s book) that this is the pogrom of 1992, in which nearly a thousand Muslims died.
But this theme – a Muslim in Mumbai – fades away as the film progresses (though Salim’s last words are those a Muslim should say - ‘God is great’). I guess Boyle/Swarup does that deliberately… but I did wonder why it became under-played.

* The Taj Mahal. The two tiny brothers wander India on trains before ending up at the end of the tourist trail in Agra.
I just want to say as the two beggar boys cry out in wonder on seeing the TM for the first time there in front of them – is this Heaven?!! – that I identified with them completely at that moment. The Taj is a staggering, staggering place; and I feel sorry for Indians who get so used to it.
As a foreigner I have never become used to it. It is … Heaven.

* The actors. Well Dev Patel is fine, but I kinda forgot how good Anil Kapoor is. I have gotten used to seeing him in rather B-grade stuff, but as the quiz-show host he is great, and even outshines the always exemplary Irfan Khan.
Indians can never quite believe me when I tell them that the Indian film industry is almost totally ignored by Westerners – you’re more likely to see a Mexican or Japanese film at your local cinema/film-theatre in the US or France than an Indian one.

Now, I know a lot of this is to do with the length. A Western audience is not going to sit through three hours; they just won’t. But it’s a source of great frustration to me. How can I explain the fact that a fine and moving film like, say, Maqbool/Macbeth, is just not going to get exposure, even in an arthouse theatre, in the UK?
Trouble is, the English non-Asian audience still thinks Bollywood is wet saris in Switzerland, and won't take it seriously.
Slumdog is the nearest they are going to get to an 'Indian' movie – which is both heartening and depressing at the same time.

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Ramakrishnan said...

Very intersting insights. Liked your review

Anonymous said...

I bumped into an American, who said she felt very uncomfortable about Slumdog. Her ‘American’ disappointment was with the fact that while it was a feel-good movie, it wasn’t a downtrodden-boy-uses-his-brains-and-overcomes-adversity story, but a film about luck. You see, the American culture believes that talent + hard-work brings success, not luck or fate, so she found the movie difficult to praise. Interesting huh?

She said, in fact, she found the story of the 'wicked' brother more interesting because he struggles against evil to commit a final 'good' act.

I thought that was a fascinating view.

emmani said...

Your post was exactly how I feel too. To me (I live in India, am married to a Mumbaikar from Sakinaka and I really "felt" the true meaning of the movie.

I loved Irfan, he's just classic and he acts through his eyes.

I hated to listen to the reviews about poverty, more poverty and poor poverty stricken children of India... it's like you said, they missed the beauty in the film. The smiles, the humanity, the camaraderie, the pure hearts and minds of true Mumbaikars.

Poverty is a different story... it's real and it exists. I hope the movie opened peoples eyes to that, but don't make it the point of the movie... and Westerners stop wriggling uncomfortably in your seats in your comfortable world, some of these "poor" people are happier than you'll ever be in your hypocritical world of shopping.

The Americans at the Taj... fabulously funny (I'm not mocking the USA) but it's true Westerners think giving money will solve the issues. It won't. These kids need choice and opportunities, along with education and inspiration.

The youth of India is standing up for itself today. They have courage and pride.

I cried when I saw the Taj for the first time, the beauty overwhelmed me. I cried when I saw the "Jai Ho" Video too, Danny Boyle and AR Rahman hit the right spot in my heart with that one!!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Englishman.

Please take a moment to read my post:

"Mera Bharat Mahan" ... My India is Great...

Lightning Crashes` said...

What you say about the length of the movie is a point well made. The Indian cinema is evolving, and moving from strength to strength and sometimes I feel the stories to strike a chord across continents must contain and touch upon the basic element of humaness, the upheavel of untilted underlying sentiment, that human race across the world identifies with.

Kavi said...

The insights in all posts are very interesting. A bit about the English vs the contemporary architecture will make an interesting read. After all Good environs make good life!