Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire - Shock and Aww
zaraa mulk ke raahbaroN ko bulaao
yeh kuucheh, yeh galiyaaN, yeh manzar dikhaao
jinheN naaz hai Hind par un ko laao
jinheN naaz hai Hind par woh kahaaN haiN?
Summon the nation's leaders,
Show 'em these lanes and quarters,
Summon the nation's proud flag-bearers,
Where are the nation's proud flag-bearers?
- Sahir Ludhianvi.
In Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, the thematic equivalent of parading a woman naked before the camera is the sequence where little Jamal, plastered from head to toe in shit, jostles through a crowd, all for an autograph of Amitabh Bachchan. Perhaps there is an aesthetic sensibility here; it just doesn't overlap with mine. To me, some subjects - sexual and economic exploitation certainly rank high among them - just don't lend themselves to flippancy. (That's one reason why I hated Anthony Burgess's gratuitous Clockwork Orange and, despite being a Kubrick fan, haven't cared to watch the film.) It would be one thing if an astute director (of any nationality, for the record) were to make a film that questioned the dominant India shining/poised narrative or exposed the systemic morass of corruption and exploitation in Indian society; Slumdog Millionaire is not that film, and Danny Boyle is not that director. (In recent times, Dibakar Banerjee's Khosla ka Ghosla and Oye Lucky, and Shaad Ali's Bunty Aur Babli are much more up to that task). To me, the shit and autograph scene is an in-your-face, shock-the-hell-out-of-them intro to Jamal's tenacity and the rich - poor divide. And speaking of Gulzar, let me point to how it's done: the scene in Hu Tu Tu where Suneil Shetty and Tabu land their private jet on a road, upending a hapless bicycle-rider.
To be sure, Boyle is clever enough not to attempt anything approaching social commentary - at least not on the face of it. Thus, ostensibly, the film is a filmier-than-thou imitation of those Hindi films of yore (as evinced by shots of Coolie and Zanjeer). But, mirroring the malaise that inflicts Hindi film makers who ape Hollywood, the imitation is all in form and schema, not in spirit. Jamal Malik is not the angry anti-establishment hero that Bacchan (or Kamal Hassan in Mani Ratnam's Nayakan) was; he is far too bourgeois for that - what subversive hero would exact his revenge on the system by getting rich on Kaun Banegaa Crorepati? Even Salim, his brother on the dark side, ends up mouthing such platitudes as, "India is at the center of the world", reinforcing the cherished delusions of grandeur instead of challenging them. Surely the romanticized urban common man fared far better in the folklores of Manmohan Desai (Mard, Coolie, Amar Akbar Anthony, Shahenshah), Prakash Mehra (Zanjeer) and Yash Chopra (Trishul, Deewaar); or in the socio-political commentaries of Guru Dutt (from whose Pyaasa comes the above verse of a de-Persianized version of Sahir's scathing poem), early Raj Kapoor (Sri 420), Bimal Roy (Do Beegha Zameen) and Aziz Mirza (Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Yes Boss).
As a fairy tale, too, the film isn't engaging enough. In narrating a story that is, to quote the inspector (Irrfan Khan), "bizzarely plausible", Boyle resorts to such gimmicks as jump-cutting to flashbacks in case you didn't connect the all too obvious dots. Even the badness of the baddies is exaggerated; Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar) growls, scowls and throws things around, looking more like a brat than a brute. And Jamal must face obstacles at every step; getting sheathed in shit isn't enough – his mother must be hacked to death in a communal carnage, his girl must be pimped out, and the quiz show host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) must thwart his attempts at making the millions. My wife put it best when she quipped, "It's like (Sanjay Leela Bhansali's) Black", where every conceivable ailment and impediment, and a stylized storytelling stifle any possibility of a human connection between the viewer and the characters.
You don't really know what to make of Jamal, for instance. Setting aside the leap of imagination it requires to see any Ayush Khedekar growing up to be a Dev Patel, it isn't clear who Jamal is. Even if you accept the story as allegorical, Boyle is too self-conscious (or perhaps too conscious of the poverty that just won't recede to become a mere backdrop) to paint a large, magic-real canvas in the unapologetic way that, say, Forrest Gump or the more recent Benjamin Button do. Unlike his counterparts from the American South, Jamal never quite becomes the everyman's voice of his period in Indian history; we never hear him telling us other people's interesting stories from his vantage point as an 'outsider' (h/t Amrita's post on Button).
All this makes Slumdog a half-hearted, comme ci, comme ca endeavor that wants to both be a fairy-tale and capture urban poverty but falters on both counts. I, for one, can’t see how you can hide abject poverty behind a “feel good” façade any more than you can hide rape. Can you imagine a sexually abused Cinderella finding her Prince Charming? Wouldn't it end up being a glossier version of a B-grade flick? (Indeed, Seema Biswas once joked about how many such roles she was approached for, post Bandit Queen). As the talk show lady’s gripe with Bandit Queen shows, a sentient film maker would create a film Phoolan Devi could watch and experience something of a catharsis, without feeling like a prop. Sometimes, the artist had better not be a predator. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay was a stark but empathetic and grounded ode to Bombay’s slum dwellers (and the characters were complex, recognizable human beings. How childlike Chillum was; how Oedipal Chai-pau's rescue of Rekha!).
Reading reviews of Slumdog, you’d think the movie had some unique, far-reaching significance. Here’s a mis-reading by Anand Giridharadas from the NY Times: “It channels to them [Americans] their own Gatsbyesque fantasy of self-invention, and yet places it far enough away as to imply that it is now really someone else’s fantasy”. Gatsby, the writer forgets, ended up being shot dead in a pool, not kissing his childhood sweetheart in a triumphant “aww” moment. To that extent, Bacchan in Deewar and the protagonists in Satya and Johnny Gaddar were much more Gatsbyesque.
Slumdog, then, is at best an attempt to cook a saccharine dish in a bitter sauce. Unfortunately, when it comes to the hardships of the disadvantaged, I have no palate for bittersweet. If you have a sweet tooth, Karan Johar's your chef (in whose films, hardship is conspicuous by absence). Me? I'm sticking to Sahir's talKhiyaaN - that's Urdu for bitterness.
Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire - Shock and Aww
- » Published on January 24, 2009
- » Type: Review
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