By now, most of us have been a part of the huge uproar that Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire has created! In the past few weeks, I have had encounters with too many asking me the same question: “Have you seen Slumdog Millionaire?” So, now finally, after watching it I can safely claim that I need a breather from all this fuss that the film has initiated.
No, don’t get me wrong—the film is interesting, has some great cinematography, visuals and a uniquely fragmented narrative but in the end it left me with nothing. And I literally mean—‘nothing’. Firstly, I was rather perplexed about the hype the film has been getting. Why such great adulation and awards? I promptly get the answer that the film dares to show reality of the Indian slums and the condition of the people riled in poverty against the escapist Bollywood which steeps itself into the unreal dreams.
Although ‘reality’ is a dubious word, I certainly grant that certain parts of the first half of the film accomplish the task of portraying the slum-dwelling children and the dark underworld of Mumbai. But as the film progressed, it started revealing too many faulty gaps that questioned the entire premise of the film. The problem I note here is one of conflicting genres. Boyle tried too many things in one go in Slumdog Millionaire and in the end the film fizzles out. As mentioned earlier, the first half does portray the dark underbelly of Mumbai and some of the visuals are brilliant. But then, the film with its myriad of inconsistencies begins to taper into a fairy tale and the first and second halves don’t find a space to merge. If reality is what we are looking for, then how does one explain the grown-up Jamal Malik’s cyber proficiency in the call center where he is asked to proxy for someone for few minutes? In a matter of seconds, Jamal knows exactly how to maneuver his way out in the Internet and types his brother’s name to find out his telephone number. And it doesn’t end there: when he does find many names matching his brother’s name, it only takes three calls to locate his brother in the teeming masses of Mumbai. Here, we must remind ourselves that the brothers, Jamal and Salim had departed from each other when they were rather young, and after the long gap when Jamal is perhaps in his late teens, it strikes an incredulous note that he and his brother can immediately recognize their voices over the phone. A rather charming coincidence!
The plot falters yet again in the anomalous finding of Latika. Jamal manages to find Latika rather easily, incidentally standing outside at the same time when Jamal has come to look for her at the underworld don’s house. Apart from the faulty plot line, Salim’s sudden change in the end from the feisty, aggressive underworld guy transforming quickly to help Latika and Jamal was exceedingly unconvincing. Furthermore, one wonders which government public school in India teaches Alexandre Dumas' work The Three Musketeers to the down-trodden children, a rather far fetched idea that again topples the most significant connecting idea of the film! The final nod to Bollywood with the railway-station dance also hung in there as a poor token to Bollywood. I emphasize on the series of such coincidences simply because these ‘minor’ problems are not just ‘mere’ coincidences in the film; rather, they reveal the larger problem of a fantasy driven implausible story. So, the question still remains—what was the film trying to do? This intermix of several styles and things from the depiction of the poverty and horrors of Mumbai slum to the fairy tale-like coincidences and abrupt dancing in the end made it too jarring and emptied me of any ‘real’ emotional impact that the first half was attempting to have.
It can be argued that in light of what the film achieved—that is the acute presentation of the slum children and their plight, I should be ignoring these plot coincidences. But the point is precisely that—the film with its gaps and holes becomes just a reasonably enjoyable film and it ends there; the extraordinary focus and hue and cry about it is something that needs further exploration! There are better films made in India that never see such adulation or are not worthy enough of awards, be it a Golden Globes or Oscar! Namrata Joshi incisively points out that there have seen series of films by Indian film-makers who have portrayed the city’s dark side but they have never garnered this kind of visibility. Joshi notes:
“Parinda, Satya, Black Friday and Company captured the city’s underbelly just as well, if not better. If Slumdog is gritty, the recent Tamil film Subramaniapuram, about unemployment and unrest amongst the youth in the ’80s, is grittier. But would the world accept this little gem from a newcomer called Sasikumar?” (“All it Boyles Down to”)
Traffic Signal (2007), another film made by Madhur Bhandarkar showed a glimpse of Mumbai with its underbelly of beggars and prostitution but one obviously cannot compare a Bhandarkar film with a Boyle one! The music of Slumdog is something else that took me by surprise. Rahman has had many other brilliant background scores in various films and inarguably this was not one of his best, or representative of the genius that is A. R. Rahman. And yet, the music of this film has already received some awards at some esteemed award functions.
So, the point about all this also raises the question of which films gets validated by the award churning industry and about the politics of representation! And again, I of course don’t mean that showing India with all its poverty and filthy slums in a film makes it an unacceptable one. On the contrary, Slumdog Millionaire did have another side of the immensely rich Mumbai, albeit corrupt Mumbai, represented by the underworld gang-leader. But we need to draw our focus to a certain ‘worlding of the world,’ a term coined by Spivak, which becomes a generic way of depicting the so-called ‘third world,’ which then generates interest for a certain audience, and awards start piling on to such an experience which sheds light on Indian slums and poverty. Interestingly enough, Boyle’s statement that this film is not about India and could be set anywhere invalidates itself with most people’s focus on the real depiction of Indian slums. And here too, the film does the extra bit of glorifying the filth and gore of Mumbai’s slums through certain scenes—for instance, the scatology-driven scene with young Jamal drenching in fecal matter was largely unnecessary and simply put it was there as a fetishization of the Mumbai slum-life. The point about terrible living conditions and utmost poverty had been driven well before that, so this kind of tokenization was hardly necessary. The Hindu-Muslim riot scene was another which lacked historical contextualization. Scenes like that and the ending with the flash of Bollywood dance does make one wonder who the audience of the film is. As Joshi also emphasizes in her argument, one does wonder whether an Indian director making this film would have created the same hype that this film has generated. In the end, the presentation of poverty and harsh realities of Mumbai slums is not what is problematic—it is just that the film is fraught with varied other incongruities and is not spectacular enough for deserving so much attention. I, at least, could not reconcile the initial half of the film with its violence, the utterly poor conditions of the slum children, the gruesome poverty of Mumbai’s slums and the fairy tale like ending with Jamal dancing at a railway station. What I left with from Slumdog Millionaire is that it is a fairly enjoyable film made in a sophisticated way but I wondered whether cinematography and narrative are enough to make a film worthy of so much din? If so, then it is indeed sad!
Joshi, Namrata. “All it Boyles Down to.” OutlookIndia. Jan 26, 2009.
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