Saturday, January 31, 2009

Some Dog is a Millionaire!

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of a slum-dweller who was born and brought up in what is depicted as the crap-pit of the world. But he’s like no other. He decides to grab the world by its crack, and beat the crap out of it. He’s the kind who takes all the shit that the world doles out at him, only to emerge a victor, eventually. The only difference between this movie and several Indian movies which celebrated the underdog’s life in the 50s is the fact that Danny Boyle, the director of SM, focused on the “crappy” part of slum life with details that went to tasteless proportions.

But why has it elicited praise and accolades from western critics, while it continues to face the wrath of various sections of the Indian public. The answer, I believe, lies in the differing perspectives of Indians and the rest of the world about abject poverty.

Danny Boyle’s SM was a bullet which shattered the Kevlar that protected me from the knowledge of life in Mumbai’s Slums. Has he or any of the members of SM’s Team experienced life in Mumbai’s Slums, you ask. I cannot say for sure, because I never wanted to know what lies beyond whatever little I saw of Dharavi, from the window of a local train. Honestly, I’d turn away from the stench and avoid the ghastly sight. I’d never even mention this place when I spoke of the city I loved dearly. Never had I thought Dharavi could actually inspire a thought, leave alone poetry, songs, music, a story, romance or anything with a remote semblance of a good life. This is where we should draw a line with our cynicism and appreciate Boyle, Rehman and everyone involved with the fairy tale that is – Slumdog Millionaire.

While Bollywood Directors spend millions of dollars to fund their “dream” projects in “dream” locales, here’s a Brit who found his latest “love story” in the most disowned area of Mumbai, in the labyrinthine lanes of Dharavi. I’ve not read Vikas Swaroop’s book to use it as a parameter to judge the screenplay, so I’ll just speak of everything else.

Firstly, if we had a scale which would have artsy and masala on the two ends, SM would be inclined towards the latter end. It is neither a Bicycle Thief that would inspire Ray to make Pather Panchali, nor is it a DDLJ that would inspire every production house to make movies with larger-than-life NRI storylines, which would relegate Laxmi Mittal’s opulent lifestyle to modesty. Slumdog’s different.

SM narrates the life of a slum-dweller, who turns into a renegade, fighting all the norms of a “slumdog” – a term that has offended many. It is Jamal’s pursuit of love against all odds – poverty, religious vandalism, child abuse, fraud, the underworld, prostitution, organized crime, violence, economic and social disparity, corruption, and everything else that every Indian would turn their head away from in shame. And yet, he emerges a victor. “Larger than Life”, did I hear you say? But why “dwell” so much on all these ills, you ask. It is because we have simply refused to do so ourselves, “dwell” on the subject that is, that we are not able to digest Boyle’s bold portrayal. How much can a vilayati possibly sugarcoat the crap, which is life in the slums?

Now coming to the direction and editing. Brilliant! Each answer on the TV show becoming a key that unlocks the pandora’s box of Jamal’s past, a narrative device kept from cliche by deft direction and slick edits. And SM is certainly not without its share of inspiration. Black Friday and Satya probably had a big role in shaping Boyle’s directorial route, but that’s taking no credit away from the chase sequence early in the movie. Lathi-laden Havaldars chasing a bunch of brats all over Dharavi, with “Oh Saya” is the background is undoubtedly a directorial masterpiece.

There is also a powerful visual interpretation of Mumbai. The movie, much like the city itself, overflows with opposites. Paradoxical collisions were never known to make a memorable cocktail - horror and joy, colourful fantasy and grimy reality, history and hyper-modernity. Through SM, we find that there are rich hues in the homes of the poor, beauty in the grotesque, music in noise, happiness in sad living conditions, and poetry in poverty. Haven’t we been guilty of turning our aristocratic heads away from Dharavi, because it inspired little? Hasn’t this westerner just exposed our myopic outlook of cinema, and life in general?

As for Rehman’s original background score, which may win him a maximum of two Oscars, though being far from his best, it was apt, definitely worthy of an Oscar if it wins one. Rehman composed music that fit the mood of the film like a glove, much like the soundtrack of Atonement or American Beauty did for their respective movies. And I reiterate, “Oh Saya” rocks!

Another debate doing the rounds among the intellectual circles in India is if SM really deserved 10 nominations. In response, I’ll say Slumdog will only compete with movies that have been released in 2008. It’s not competing with a Life is Beautiful or a Schindler’s List. So either we celebrate the production of a well-executed movie, or a fall in the standard of movies competing for the Oscars. If it wins an Oscar for the best movie, Bollywood will proudly flaunt her Digitus Impedicus to her glamorous sister in LA.

To sum it up, Slumdog Millionaire is a feel-good movie. You’ll be glued to your seats, just like the time when you cheered Harshvardhan Navathe, who went on to become the first Crorepati on KBC. You’ll rejoice the triumph of Jamal at the denouement, just as you jumped with joy when Shreeshant held on to a skier, which brought India the first T20 World Cup. And you’ll even be implored into dancing in the very streets where this movie was shot, or sing “Jai Ho!” at CST (I thought it looked like Victoria Terminus, but correct me if I’m wrong). Alright, maybe that’s pushing it too far. Probably that’s sending reality into a different Space-Time coordinate. But then, isn’t it what we come to expect from movies?


MISSquoted** said...

Wasn't CST formerly knows as the Victoria Terminus? I think they are one and the same.

1. I wholeheartedly agree that the opening scene was very impressive.I wish it had ended on the same note though. Jai Ho just seemed jarring (although the song is lovely!) and out-of-place, although undoubtedly it was a tribute to the bollywood rigmarole of gaana-naachna. But fell short of the opening scene. Fell far short.

2. I think finally, SM remains a fantasy for any lack of authenticity. You know people who go through rigid schooling all their lives can barely speak grammatically correct English. The least, as a consistent director, that Boyle could have done is provide an explanation for this. Or if he did, the editing fell short on this count.

3. Harshwardhan Nawathe came to my mind too! So heart warming isn't it, when an entire country cheers on. Loooowely :)

Sudhir Pai said...

I was just thinking abt it...
the guy works for a call centre that attends calls from Britain right?
he he!

no no! you're right! people in India speaking the Queen's(queens in Birmingham and the US and SMS text everywhere) English is pushing it too far.

Sudhir Pai said...

@Ishita: I know abt CST-VT transition, I wasn't sure if the venue of "Jai Ho" is CST-VT.

praveen said...

Though i agree that O Saya rocks & it was commendable that a hollywood movie helps us keep in touch with our reality.
But there are several holes in the script and i thought it was only the kids that made the movie endearing.
There are far better movies this year and it frustrates me no end that many a time these politically favored movies outshine the others.

Sudhir Pai said...

Are you back in hyd?

as far as the authenticity of Oscars for excellence in cinema is concerned, a Hitchcock or a Kubrick never won any. That's case in point!

I guess the subject of Oscars deserves another post in itself, I mean, how does Heath Ledger get nominated for a supporting actor, and not the best actor??

or for that matter, how does Tom Hanks win for Philadelphia, but not Denzel Washington?

or how does a lagaan enter nominations but TZP or Parzania doesn't?

too many...
but then, you still cant hold it against SM for garnering 10 nominations? To me it remains a good movie, whether it wins 10 oscars or none.

more on this after the oscar night!

sam said...

i watched maybe 45 mins of the movie before turning it off in disgust.

i thought it was the colonialist view of india that grabbed attention from the west. it's not the triumph of human spirit, it's not the music, it's the fact that the india in the movie is the india many want to believe in more than anything else.

(just like we would love to see movies where all chinese move around wearing blue robes with pointy hats and noodle moustaches.)

there's always many sides to a city, a country, a life... to focus so much on the crap is well, like one of the scene with amitabh's helicopter and the pile of shit.

i didn't really like the anil kapoor version of kbc either. through the whole series, no matter what Big B or SRK did on the show, they never belittled any of the contestants on screen the way the host in the movie did. no audience ever laughed at contestants for being a chai wallah. and to me, once again, it seemed like a subtle exaggeration that life only throws crap at some people.

overall, it seemed to me like the movie just pandered to the tastes of the west. nothing a mani ratnam - a r rahman movie couldn't achieve with more polish. either in terms of imagination, narration or technically.

Sudhir Pai said...

Would you have said the same if the director was a RGV or a Mani Ratnam or an Indian?

well, as far as I see it, it's positive story which has the society's negatives forming the backdrop. The director has evidently made a movie within the confines of a screenplay, which was an adaptation of a book by an Indian. Unless the author claims to wash his hands off the project because the Director doctored the script to suit the western outlook, we cannot really accuse the director of doing so.

Now speaking of the movie purely in the technical sense, it's brilliant. And with all due respects to the man, Mani Ratnam cannot really make claims of having directed a better movie, though I'd really like to see that happen one day. Bombay and Dil Se are still not in that league.

Sudhir Pai said...

@Sam: I agree with you on Anil Kapoor's portrayal of a condescending game-show host! I think it's analogous to a movie featuring an evil minister, or teacher who kills his student. [:)]
It's improbable but not impossible. I can think of at least one TV show host who has been blatantly patronizing, and I was at the receiving end. But yea, I cannot imagine either Big B or SRK having even a remote similarity to the character of Prem in SM. I'm with you on that one, though.

Anonymous said...

Sudhir...i had to google "Digitus Impudicus"!


Sudhir Pai said...


I was wondering if anyone would complement me on that one!

Made my day, Pavan!

Sudhir Pai said...


I do stand corrected there, it is Digitus Impudicus!

Thanks, Pavan!

Purely Narcotic said...

Oscars- a bunch of geriatrics and that's a largely agreed upon view.

And as for SM gathering 10 nominations and even if it wins a couple, we know we are going to be celebrating. And besides even if it's a token Oscar that ARR wins- perhaps paving the path for him and many others (I'm tempted to say 'waiting with their tongues hanging out' but won't)-why not?

As for Anil Kapoor's portrayal, isn't that how we are? We can't stomach the fact that a chaiwallah could be a millionaire, a farmer's daughter is a doctor and a labourer's song attended IIM. Perhaps SRK or AB were not so on the real show but outside of that we are like that. 'Haw! A farmer's son cleared the MBBS entrance test? REally?' Yeah, really. It's almost like Danny Boyle held a mirror to our faces and now that we know we are not all that pretty..Sigh.

Sudhir Pai said...

Oh perf!

I never really looked at it that way!!Interesting thoughts, I must say!

Yes I'll celebrate every Oscar that SM wins, though I wont be shocked if it doesn't win even one. :)
But awesome profile of the Oscar Panel. High Fives!

and as for your thoughts on Anil Kapoors portrayal, I'd like to genaralize it to human mentality rather than an Indian characteristic. But then, I've only lived in India. You'd surely know better!


Purely Narcotic said...

Human Mentality- probably. Precisely why Obama was celebrated in the way he was. His saving grace: he's 'black'. Nothing that out of the ordinary had it not been for the colour and the history of that colour in the US- the 400 year old slave history etc. But then again Americans are not known to be big on one's educational history.

In India, however, it's a whole different story. Or maybe not. I haven't lived for long in India to speak. :)

sam said...

@ We can't stomach the fact that a chaiwallah could be a millionaire, a farmer's daughter is a doctor and a labourer's song attended IIM

i completely disagree. we are surprised, certainly. but i think overall, it qualifies as the "feel good" news in a newspaper.

@would i crib if the movie was made by in indian?

no. i'd probably react even worse!

Thanatos said...

I rather liked the movie. There's the argument that all the the West sees India as one big slum. While that's debatable, there's no doubting that slums exist in India. And that this was a good movie if watched with an open mind.

Sudhir Pai said...

That's the problem, Thanatos. We never seem to take criticism with an open mind. As a result, we seem to over-react to criticism, even when there isn't one.


Madhu said...

I love what you have written. Too often I've found myself justifying this movie to Indians around here. The non-indians love it. The Indians, perversely it seems at times, hate it. They call it unreal, criticize the english and its accent, and everything else. Too often I've found myself justifying that India is a story that needs to be told, and this is a story never told before. That is why the initial sentences in this post made so much sense to me. Thank you for this wonderfully written piece.
Its so easy to criticize in this world, faar more difficult to appreciate beauty that lie in interpretations that differ from our own.

Sudhir Pai said...

Hey Madhu!

whoa!! Your comment my day! :)

I believe we Indians live in a state of denial. Or at least our movies have conditioned us to reside in a state of denial for the duration of the movie. As a result, truth hurts. And it definitely hurts more when an outsider points it out, though that may not be the case here, as I'd mentioned in one of my earlier comments here.

Or maybe slumdog is the punching bag we have all been waiting for. It is the movie we love to hate. So its 10 nominations at the oscars may just end up being another piece of trivia in the future.

And by the way, I'm hoping to catch up with you sometime soon. At your convenience, of course!