SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE: Under the Spotlight

Depending on where you’re sitting, there’s nothing more irritating or joyful than Oscar Time — that time when the chosen films are thrown in to be dissected, piece by piece, as everyone’s opinions start to weight in. It can be joyful if your favorite film is the one nominated and wins, and it can be irritating if yours doesn’t, or if you just generally loath the idea of the The Academy’s nominations. Nevertheless, I now have to jump on a bandwagon, in talking about the present film-to-talk-about. And since I still haven’t chimed in on this film at all, here is my take of Danny Boyle’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE.

First of all, I find it hard to hate Danny Boyle’s film. The film is likeable. But, I’m not surprised that other people have found it rather easy, either. In a year in which some great films were present, I find it a little difficult to sallow as well how this has been regarded as, not just a great film, but as an actual masterpiece. 

Oddly enough, however, one would never get such idea from watching the actual film, that it has the goal of being considered anything more than pure entertainment. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is an unpretentious ride of joy, devoid of any serious subjects or conflictive events (or at least, not one that takes much space or development), embracing traditional archetypes, and the immediacy of all the colorful outrageousness and the aura of a fairy-tale. It is celebrative and sometimes cartoon-ish, even in darkness. Then it is romantic, in a stereotypical Romeo-Juliet way. And, of course, unashamedly hopeful, in destiny-themed (or openly contrived) turns so that we always can see the light in the tunnel. It uses these mechanical elements – the clichés that always work – to have the result of an enjoyable experience – an “audience film,” dressed as a Bollywood picture. But if there’s anything wrong – or better said, perhaps, anything that keeps it from deserving the honor of an admirable piece of work – it is this very mechanism.

It is a mechanism that is fascist and blatantly manipulative, leaving something of masturbatory show for the audience. The film’s intent to do a demonization of money and materialism, and demonstrate that hopeful satisfaction of love (“Come away with me?” “And live on what?” “Love.”), divides the characters in black and white colors, as the good guys are pretty and poor and the bad ones are rich and ugly, depicting cardboard characters that are scarce of any characterization further than these superficial details and stereotypical traits. The love element is equally perfunctory, going with a by-the-numbers angle that, again, works because they always work, with the hero having to take the damsel from the evil villain who has her captive. The film asks if the characters and their stories are “written,” and by that it means that if such so obviously manipulative, stereotypical (or wishful) and far-fetched stuff could happen in any other place than in a film that tries to be.

Indeed, story-wise, the film fills wishes, again and again, and just about everything that the audience would hope for actually happens, embracing the formulaic and the predictable as a positive. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE premises itself as an optimistic perfect world – or at least it becomes gradually so – and justifies these formulistic crowd-pleaser elements, just as a Bond-film would replay the same trick to audiences and satisfy their wishes with the same plots, the same villains and, well, the same everything else. There are moments of wonder, usually having more to do with the culture and the lifestyle it tries to show, but these moments get sucked eventually into the narrative of the archetypes and of the traditional romanticism.

A line from the review of Eric Heynes caught my interest, when he compared the film as “a goofy picaresque to rival FORREST GUMP,” having “a similar power to please, shell-gaming the audience into emotionally investing in and celebrating its protagonist’s dumb romanticism.” Indeed, as FORREST GUMP, my experience was a fun and escapist, if only because it demands and allows as much, and it is self-aware about its innocence. There’s nothing else to get from it. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, for people like me, will remain as one of those films that we critique because of its highly ranked spot, but feel wrong in giving the impression that we hate it. And yet, there’s nothing else to say other than it is indeed overrated.

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2 Responses

  1. Scenes of poverty and squalour may appear romantic to Westerners and to our snooty elite but for ordinary Indians they are nothing new. They are an everyday reality. However, one wonders what sort of mind can find such images aesthetically pleasing. Party-hopping socialites (for example, Shobhaa De after all her bombast of “enough is enough” after the Mumbai attack, went and watched a pirated copy!) who are distanced from such reality may find this film an “eye-opener” but for us it IS just poverty-porn. It IS just slum- voyeurism. The music/soundtrack and the technical quality is excellent but I think, overall, the film is unrealistic and over-rated because:
    1) The director seems to RELISH showing violence. Some of it (like the police-torture) is quite needless. And why was the boy arrested in the first place? On what charge? Was it realistic?
    2) How can a boy growing up in slums speak such accented English? Even if one assumes that the language he actually uses to communicate with the game-show host and the police officer is Hindi (granting the director the creative license to use a language better suited for international audiences), there are 2 instances where it is stretched too far: (a) when the boy becomes a ‘guide’ for foreign tourists at the Taj Mahal & (b) when he becomes a substitute-operator at the call-centre.
    3) When the boy uses his ‘lifeline’ during the game-show, his friend discovers that she has forgotten her mobile and has to run back for it. This is plain Bollywood masala! Did the director HAVE to make it so melodramatic?
    4) How did the boy know who invented the revolver just by watching his brother use it?
    5) How does his friend know about Benjamin Franklin (something which many Americans themselves don’t know)?
    6) “Darshan Do Ghanshyam” is NOT written by Surdas. It is written by Gopal Singh Nepali for the movie Narsi Bhagat (1957). This song is also credited as traditional and originally written by 15th century poet Narsi Mehta, whose life that film is based on.
    7) After winning the game-show, the boy sits on the railway platform and nobody recognizes him! Considering the popularity of the show, is that realistic?
    8) Two glaring omissions: To get invited to the show one has to answer several GK questions over phone or Internet. Even after making it to the show, a contestant can reach the hot-seat, only after qualifying through “fastest finger first”. All this is conveniently forgotten in the film.
    9) And of course the greatest flaw in the storyline: programmes like ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ and ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ are NOT telecast live. As a result the entire structure of the film becomes unrealistic. For a film that boasts of being realistic such a flaw cannot be overlooked.
    Due to all these flaws, “Slumdog Millionaire” is no better or worse than an average Bollywood masala film and the Academy will lose its credibility if it gives this film the Best Picture & Best Director awards.

  2. @Sambit

    Hollywood films have all those ‘flaws’ too, especially the violence and melodramaticism.

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