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?