Monday, March 09, 2009

Slumdog - A Flawed Film, Made on a False Premise

I finally saw “Slumdog Millionaire” and came away nauseated. No, it doesn’t have to do with seeing all the shit on the protagonist’s face, as it has to do with the faults in a movie that has won so many awards. But it opened my eyes about how the world sees us: as being a poor country, as a country of immense contradictions. They have heard stories about us and don’t know how true they are, but here they are, “Godawful, goddamit, are things so bad there? Man, I heard stories, but is Slumdog what really happens in the boondocks over there, man?” Well, something similar. There are several things in the movie that made me want to puke and, my only medium being my blog, here it is, slime and all.

As I sit in the movie hall, glitches after glitches parade before me on screen and I think how can they reward a movie that is so persistently bad? I fish in the dark inside my rucksack for a notebook to record what was puke-worthy about “Slumdog Millionaire.” It was dark and I had to grope, sort of, hit and miss connecting pen to paper. I couldn’t take it. It was so bad.

To some of my compatriots who have gone ga-ga over the film I have this to say: puhleezee don’t sell your souls. I had defended Arvind Adiga for “The White Tiger” because he portrayed the life of a driver with some originality but I won’t defend this shit (pun intended). I guess I should have seen the flick before all the adulation started, so I could have contributed to the chatter and pointed out the glaring directorial and script glitches that only a person in the know could point out. But it’s too late! Or, is it? I guess the damage has already been done, it has won awards, it has damaged India before the world, and we, ingenuous and gullible, are celebrating as if we have won something big. Damn! So pardon this remorseful soul for putting this up so late. It’s better late... and all that.

Having set the tone of this review, let me state categorically that the movie damages Indian sensibilities, the basis of India. I saw the movie the Saturday before Oscar and then I saw the Oscar ceremony on Monday where the presenter, Hugh Jackman, performed the (by now) famous “excrement” scene while doing his jig. (I guess this is the scene that most people remember from the movie.) The audience laughed. Actually I could hear the world laughing with them. So I ask: is India so full of “excrement” that its only award winning movie should start with the hero jumping into a pit full of the stuff?

The nausea extends even further. There are a string of nasty phrases, “Excrement”, “slumdog,” “overnight millionaire,” which wittingly or unwittingly seeks to break through the stereotype and give India a new and less-than-desirable definition. So is it goodbye to images of India as one of rope tricksters, mango pickle makers, and snake charmers and hello and welcome to the third-world repository of “excrement” and slums? We could be the next Zimbabwe for all the director cares. I am not speaking of just these portrayals here, but of the attempt to associate India with the absolute pits (pardon this term) of humanity by a deeply flawed and technically unsound movie. The script has several loopholes that don’t ascribe to it the qualifier of a “film deserving the Oscar.” No, not even our own Filmfare Award.

Let me start my major issue with the “excrement” scene where Jamal jumps into a shit-pit and runs to get Amitabh’s signature. (I am told Danny Boyle revels in shit-pit scenes in his films, so this gimmick!) My detractors could argue that this is called artistic expression. But isn’t Mr. Boyle stretching things a bit too far? If shit constitutes artistic expression then sooner than later we will have sculptures made of shit in art galleries. No, shit is shit and it should remain where it belongs.

First of all, let me clarify this, no Indian boy would jump into shit just to meet his movie hero. How do I know this? May be, it is the Indian’s revulsion to anything to do with “excrement.” (A neighbour is popularising affordable toilets in India and finds his task insurmountable in spite of government grants because he says Indians baulk at the mention of the word and want to get it done with and not be bothered with the thought of “excrement.” May be that’s why a lot of people squat on the road instead of building an affordable toilet for themselves!) And would Amitabh give an autograph to a boy covered in shit?

Taking this episode in the film further, the above is the only scene inveigled into the movie, by design, just to answer the quiz master’s question “Which was Amitabh’s best movie?” or something to that effect. The whole shit sequence is a complete fabrication to pander to the rather juvenile and sensationalistic need to show Indians in a bad light, as a dirty people inhabiting a dirty world. So much the better to make foreign audiences rush to fill movie houses around the world. I have a queasy feeling, as I sit in the darkness that the joke is on us and, ironically it might seem, our headlines are screaming, “Hollywood, here we come”.

The show host
My second issue is with the character of Anil Kapoor. I assume it is a character of Prem Kumar that he is playing and not Anil himself, even then the characterisation has several flaws. He is shown as being critical of Jamal and makes fun of him before the audience calling him a “chaiwallah.” Incredibly, he even goes to the extent of deviously suggesting a wrong answer to Jamal, which would have seen his exit from the show.

Now, why would Anil Kapoor or Prem Kumar do this in real life? Hosts of Kaun Banega Crorepati such as Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan have been very kind to the contestants, so why is Prem Kumar so full of animus? “He is a fraud,” he says. Instead he should be sympathetic to Jamal, because he came from a similar background as he says in a subsequent scene, “I also came from there.”

The reason, I suspect, is that the director mustn’t even have read the book on which the film is based. In the novel, Jamal works for a female film actor who has an affair with actor Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), the host of the show. It’s to avenge Prem Kumar who mistreats Jamal that Ram Mohammed Thomas (Jamal in the film) appears on the show, smuggling a gun with him. Once in the show, Prem recognises him, reason for his contempt. In the book, Ram confronts Prem Kumar with the gun in the toilet when the latter tries to misguide him by suggesting the wrong answer to the question. This crucial fact, so germane to the story, was ignored by the director making me suspect that neither Danny Boyle nor Simon Beaufoy have read the novel.

The chase scene
The opening scene of the film shows a team of policemen chasing the boys playing cricket. I watch as a posse of North Indian looking policemen, wearing beret caps, chase the children. A little later, the chasing policemen are shown wearing the Bombay police’s typical garrison caps, and again when the boys are captured, magically it might seem, the cops are shown wearing berets. Does it mean the policemen chased them from Agra all the way to Bombay? How can a film showing such sloppiness in continuity/costume/direction be awarded an Oscar? I don’t know. I have to ask the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science.

Maman and Punnose
The villainous team of Maman and Punnose who blind boys to make them beg is another characterisation (among many) in which the film’s plot slips.

Now “Maman” mean “uncle” in Malayalam and Punnoose is a regular Syrian-christian name hailing from Kerala. Despite their names, Maman and Punnoose do not in the slightest look like Malayalis to me (I know. I am one!). For one, Maman doesn’t have the south Indian accent, the walk, or look of a Malayali and looks to me like a North Indian political lackey in his safari suit. His sidekick, Punnoose, supposedly a Malayali, also doesn’t remotely look like one and wears a kurta-pyjama which a Malayali goon will never do. The reason: the directors don’t know! They don’t bloody know the characters and what they wear. For all they care Maman and Punnoose could be Italians or Malaysian. Again, the film stumbles badly.

The Taj Sequence
More hilarity comes in the Taj sequence. Did the directors go to the Taj to shoot the sequence? Did they at least talk to someone who has? As far as I can remember on my two visits to the Taj, I found that shoes aren’t removed at the main gate but near the mausoleum, but then, they are deposited with a special caretaker who issues a token (I don’t know if this procedure has changed, but I don’t think it has). How then can Jamal make a living stealing and selling shoes at the Taj?

Then follows a sequence in which Jamal becomes a guide and shows some tourists around the Taj. This is laughable. No private guides are allowed inside the Taj, as far as I know. The guides who accompanied us on our visits were all trained and certified by the government of India.

Again, Jamal is shown taking Americans around for some slum tourism and when they come back the Americans’ car has been stripped of its tyres. This scene looks trumped up from the very beginning. “See, man, this is the sort of country it is!” The American wife forces her husband to be kind and offer money to Jamal. A clear bias of the director becomes apparent here. Why is Jamal being blamed for the prank committed by others? Is it because the basic assumption, the subtext of the movie, is: all poor Indians are thieves? And why is the American wife telling the husband to pay Jamal, because all westerners are kind-hearted and Indians are untrustworthy rogues? Again, the director shows his bias, and the film shows holes the size of shit-pits.

Darshan Do Ghanshyam
There are more glitches that make the film appear worse than a shoddily made B-grade Bollywood film. More grist for the diary mill as I sit and make notes in the dark. The song “Darshan Do Ghanshyam” is ascribed in the film to poet Surdas while it has now come out that it has been written by Nepali G S for the film Narsi Bhagat (1957)directed by Devendra Goel.

The song writer’s son N.S.Nepali as quoted by the Times of India: “Surdas has over 1,500 poems to his name, but, he (Nepali’s son) says, 'Darshan do Ghanshyam' was definitely not one of them.’ Another song, 'Ankhiya hari darshan ko pyasi', written by Surdas, also expresses a similar sentiment and this is the song that should have been featured. But Slumdog quiz show clearly mentions 'Darshan do', and the name of the actual writer of the song is not mentioned.”

As I delve in, making notes in the dark theatre, the film gets murkier, the script meanders without any redeeming features, the slender love story plot falls apart, and my nausea grows! I have seen more hastily assembled documentaries which look better made when compared to this feature film. It’s sad!

In my humble view...
Does the film sell, as some allege, Indian poverty to a western audience? Or, is it aimed at smashing the myth that Bollywood films are ever so keen to propagate of a shining industry originating from a country on the cusp of being a world power? That too, an industry in which if you are dark-skinned you don’t even get to play role as a dancer in the periphery of an “item” song!

For long I have believed that Bollywood films have veered away from the realistic backbone that should characterise all works of art and have dwelt purely in a phantasmal realm, devoid of any touch with common everyday aspiration of Indians. Given this, is it any wonder that the world wants to believe someone like Danny Boyle who came to India with a story idea, visited a few slums, held his nose at the stink, and filmed a boy jumping into the shit-pit to show originality? And how ironical to think that we are applauding it because we feel guilt about ignoring our own poverty and slums! Yes, that’s what is making us say “Hollywood, here we come.”

The ultimate page in this degrading saga comes in the form of the item song “Jai Ho.” Much as I like the music of A.R. Rehman I couldn’t contain the nausea that was waiting to purge within me. Rehman did a great song but Boyle made it into an item song (a song which has a lot of hip shaking and lewd gestures) to show the western world how crude our movies are. “Hahahaha” I swear I can hear him laugh when he shot this song.

As Danny Boyle himself states, the film is British, not Indian. He clearly distances himself from associating it with India because his main purpose was to show life in the slums (ugh!) from a British (Western) perspective, to entertain fellow Westerners. From the Indian standpoint, I feel it is a very flawed film that sends a very negative picture of India to the world. Throughout the film there isn’t one character who would say something kind to the protagonist who goes through a virtual hell. In the entire film the camera dwells on shit, garbage, menacing faces, and treachery of those who have power over poor Jamal.

Is India and Indians that bad?
Let’s be realistic. What would happen if an Indian on the highest rungs of a quiz show like “Kaun Banega Crorepati” is abducted by the police and tortured? The press would be snapping at the police’s heels and human rights activists would have descend on the police station in droves. Does this happen in the movie? No, because the biased director and script writer is convinced that Indians live in medieval times, that there is no respect for the law in India, and that, of course, a finalist in a popular quiz show can be abducted and tortured by the police, that too a day before the final show where he wins a crore. Absolute crap this! This is so because the director came to India, saw a slum, say, Dharavi, and decided that what was true of Dharavi was true for the rest of India. “Cor blimey! Those slums are pretty bad aren’t they?” I can’t contain the rising nausea inside me.

Why are we so ecstatic about the Oscars?
Now the crucial final question: why are we so ecstatic about a movie that speak ill of us? Aren’t we able to see that the world is sharing a laugh with the British director; the dramatisation of “excrement” in the opening jig of the Oscar proves it? True it gave A.R. Rehman his dues as a world-class composer. The only saving grace of the movie! Does it make Bombay proud? No, way. The memory of the terror attack is fresh in everybody’s minds and the movie reinforces the image of it as a city of immense contradictions.

May be, it’s because of a misplaced sense of importance. We know, try as we might, we never got any attention from the Hollywood big wigs and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. All our previous entries failed miserably to get an award in the “Best Foreign Film” category. So, here was “Slumdog Millionaire” the story of a youth leading the life of a dog in the slums of Bombay getting the honour of “Best Picture” and “Best Director”. You see, in India even infamy is good and even a bad name is celebrated, don’t you know? See all those men in white who rule over us. “Areee, deva, deva,” as they would say in a Bombay slum, “Itna bada award? Kuch tho hoga na, kya?”

As I leave my nausea overwhelms. I run to the bathroom and purge myself of the caramel popcorn I had injested. “Away with it” I say and put the movie behind as not worthy of my hard earned sweat of brows.


RaneForrest said...

John, your review comes far too late -- most people are probably all reviewed-out about SDM.

But since you made the effort to write it (and I to read it!), I'll remark on just one aspect of your review: the "India is not like that" sentiment which you -- and some Indians -- express in response to such a depiction of India's poverty/blight/etc.

(A) India IS like that. I, a once-Indian, experience India like that when I visit. You might say my perspective has changed because I'm no longer an Indian. But that would only prove my point, wouldn't it?

(B) But India is also like other things (ordinary people, call centers, compassion, love, countryside, etc., etc.), some of which are also depicted in the movie and other "western" accounts of India.

(C) (And this is my main thrust): Westerners no longer think of India ONLY as the shitty/blighty place; they think of it as the multifarious place it is. In my opinion, it is your paranoia which makes your mind highlight the horrible parts and think there's nothing else shown and there's nothing else that'll be remembered. Either paranoia -- or romanticism/patriotism -- which makes you want to leave the westerner with a biased, censored view of India. This may be commendable for an Indian, but it isn't the truth.

Ammalu said...

India..from the land of snake charmers to the land of excrement!

Ajay Rawat said...

The review seems to be written with sole aim of putting down a Movie with pre conceived notions.
There is a lack of rational thinking on your part.

And by the SM is a work of fiction and nowhere does it mention that its a documentary and needed to be taken seriously.

I am not saying that every one should like this movie but the point I am trying make is that if the movie is of top notch quality with faced paced and innovative storyline (which it is) review like this makes your point weaker.

The tone you use in review is of hate and prejudice. Perhaps you could have criticized this movie in more sensible way.
But unfortunately you are being one dimensional and merely focusing only on the potrayel of India.

By same logic you would use similar tones for movie like Pather Panchali which is considered a masterpiece

May be we Indians are so immersed in Bollywood type cinema with absurds level of acting and copied screenplay that anything original like SM has to face the burnt of being diffrent.

Kittu... said...

I see your point but don't you think u have reacted toomuch and toolate. I liked the movie because it exposed the bad in India and if you happen to be in slum as an NGO you would know it is much worse than what is shown on silver screen.

I hope people living in cities and spending huge sums of money on useless stuff atleast realize that slums and its problems are part of India and should work for betterment of society instead of talking shit.

I know we and our govt does nothing to the people living in slums, hopefully after watching this movie many NGO from western world will fund and help poor people (if its not eaten by corrupt people)

opsudrania said...

Hello John,
Read your as well as Mr Rushdie's comments. Also read the follow up comments. This a queer world and somebody's food can be poison for another. I see a story like this in this place. India is a kleptocracy- anyone is welcome to use and abuse with full impunity.

Normally, all over the world, it is a custom that you only show your house tidied up, not in a mess to a visitor. The west knows it well.

It is not the making of SM film on the Dharawi slum that is material. What is material is:
(1) Who and how made it.
(2) Why made it- 'Mens rea'.
(3) It's future implications on the Indian society at international level.
(4) Was the idea to show,"Where the post-colonial India stand after so called independence.
(5) Is the idea to show to the Asians in the west that look how the India and Indians are. So that they should not complain if being maltreated abroad.
(6) A good cost effectivity with a far fetching business return. Business and entertainment combined
nicely and neatly. Indians have a little low IQ compared to the west. This is my assesment, I may be wrong.
(7) I personally would have prefered it filmed indigenously with no overseas exposure - a personal view. But the 'Corruption God' at home and 'Whiteman's Burden' mentality is a good business for outsiders.
(8) As you rightly pointed out, the Oscars were a dirty joke hurled around. But the characters at home seem not only happy but proud. Their social standing graph is boosted up. Doctorates are pouring in. Dany Boyle Inc must be doubly happy at this.

I hope I have not hurt personal feelings of anyone concerned while highlighting my own concerns.

With no malice to none and best regards,

With all sincerity.