Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire just doesn't cut it for me

33 Horrors And A Happy Ending

The episodic construction, the cardboard and one-dimensional characters, the 'garbage tourism' feel, which some have called 'poverty porn' -- it's all just slumbug.

Outlook (India)

I don't have a problem with anyone making a film on India's problems. (Or Mumbai's) . And I couldn't care less who makes a film, writes a book, tells a story, or sings a song about anything or anyone: insider or outsider. Gregory David Roberts or Satyajit Ray. Or which light it shows India in: shining or dim.

I loved Danny Boyle's earlier film Trainspotting. But Slumdog Millionaire just doesn't cut it for me as a film.

What didn't work for me was the treatment; three things in particular.

The episodic construction: 33 horrors and a happy ending (Shit. Acid blindings. Child prostitution. Begging. Rape. And so forth. You get the drift...)

The characters: cardboard and one-dimensional. (I've never seen a film before where every single adult is uniformly nasty, if not downright evil.)

The 'garbage tourism' feel, which some have called 'poverty porn': I have no objections to porn per se - there's good porn and bad porn. It all depends on the perspective. And on the treatment. The reason this has the touristy feel (as opposed to the travel feel, which is about curiosity, exploration and discovery) is because it is so singularly uncurious. If Edmund Hillary famously said he climbed Everest because it was there, this films a garbage can because it is there. But it doesn't do anything interesting with the garbage can. Yes, we all know begging, rape and child prostitution exist, not to mention acid blindings - but surely they need some treatment beyond, "They exist so let's shoot them."

Gregory David Roberts also located his bestselling novel Shantaram in the slums of Mumbai. And I loved it, including its pulp fiction form and feel. The lepers who sell fake medicines, the experience of shitting in the slums, the milieu, the energy, the characters. They were all mad and bad and wild and crazy. They had nuances. He did something with them - he didn't just stand there and say: "Oh my god! A slum! Gawp!"

So did Fernando Meirelles in his recent film Blindness, based on Jose Saramago's novel of the same name. Meirelles earlier made City of God, which is often invoked when Slumdog is discussed. In Blindness, he uses blindness as a central plot element - an entire city turns blind - and as an extreme backdrop to explore the human psyche. Sure, there are those who take advantage of the situation. And there are others who don't. And 'good vs evil' is not the only axis along which the characters are treated in the film. There are strong fictional characters. They have shadings. They have other elements to them.

While some groups have protested Blindness (saying it demeans the blind), that's not what I took away. But while Meirelles does not in any way - explicitly or implicitly - treat blindness as demeaning, Slumdog treats poverty as an outpost of hell, peopled by living monsters. Its treatment seems to imply that poverty creates uni-dimensional monsters, not real, rounded human beings. (It's not the poverty, stupid. It's the treatment.)

Going by the acclaim that Slumdog has gathered, should writers now treat all characters in poor settings as single-sheet cardboard and only those in more affluent settings as rounded flesh and blood? Or should poor 'characters' also get some scriptwriting attention and be constructed in ways that are unique? Can a protagonist be treated as a straight line just because he is poor? Would Ray's Pather Panchali have got such worldwide acclaim if Durga and Apu had been as unipolar as Slumdog's Jamal? And should we, as viewers, lower all our cinematic expectations just because a film is set in a slum?

Perhaps all this would not have mattered if a lesser-known filmmaker had made Slumdog.But when a filmmaker with Boyle's credentials comes into the picture, one does have expectations. And to be fair, some of these are met. The energy, the camerawork, the music - these are all Slumdog's strengths.

But I still don't understand why an ordinary fast-paced film is being treated as a cinematic masterpiece. As Namrata Joshi wrote, "Why is the world reacting as though someone has done something startlingly new to cinema?"

It's a mystery. More so since Boyle seems to have got his cues straight from Bollywood. Like Baz Luhrmann, who at least took the right things from Bollywood. He took the trappings: the glitz colour music dance spectacle. ("Spectacular! Spectacular" as one of the characters from Moulin Rouge says flamboyantly in a song whose lyrics include: "Elephants! Bohemians! Indians! and courtesans! Acrobats! and juggling bears! exotic girls! fire eaters! Muscle men, contortionists!")

That's Bollywood. The plot is irrelevant, the song sequences dazzling. Why think when you can see? Why meditate when you can levitate?

But who lifts plot elements from Bollywood? Or its characters and clich�s? (There is no doubt Bolly scripts and treatment are both improving with a new generation of directors and writers entering the fray - see Om Shanti Om, Johny Gaddar, Life in A Metro etc. But these are still exceptions, not the rule. And it is of course a supreme irony that while Bollywood has been struggling to get a foothold in the Oscar best foreign film category, a Bollywood wannabe may walk away with the top honours: Best Film in the English Language.

At the end of the day, this is nothing but a boy-meets-girl Bollywood pastiche shot in exotic slum locales. But on top of everything else, what Slumdog lacks is Bollywood's trademark strengths: The oomph. The sizzle. The razzmatazz. And the masala. Where's the masala?

In its place is a gaping void. So how many horrors does a film need to fill a black hole? 33 and a happy ending? Who knows? Who cares?

Anyway, in the end, boy gets rich, boy gets girl, everyone's happy -- and it's all just slumbug.

Bishakha Datta, a writer and filmmaker with extensive media experience, is the programme director of Point of View

'Why Slumdog fails to move me'
BBC online
Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's new film based on a rags-to-riches tale of an Indian slum boy, has already become one of the hits of the year. The BBC's Soutik Biswas wonders whether it is really the "masterpiece" it is made out to be.

Slumdog Millionaire poster
The film has been called a Dickensian take on the city of Mumbai

Like his protagonist, a gutsy 18-year-old slum boy who is on the verge of winning 20 million rupees (about $400,000) in a popular TV quiz show, Danny Boyle has hit an unlikely jackpot with Slumdog Millionaire.

And much like Jamal, a child who nobody believes could get this far on the TV show without cheating, Boyle is being roasted by some critics for taking an easy shortcut and "using" poverty to serve up a we-are-poor-but-we-are-happy story.

After picking up four US Golden Globe awards and raking in nearly $50m at the box office in the US and Britain already, Slumdog, unquestionably, is the flavour of the season.

With its mixed cast, the much-feted and hyped film is also Boyle's paean to Mumbai (Bombay), India's edgy metropolis of extremes, and Bollywood, the world's most prolific film industry.

Everybody loves a good underdog. That is why Slumdog touches a chord

Your comments on this review

Some have called it a moving Dickensian take on Mumbai thanks to its portrayal of the city's stifling and colourful squalor and the people who live in it. Others have derisively called it poverty porn. One critic called Boyle's work "slum chic".

Well, yes, in the shadow of rubbish mountains, mothers get hacked to death in front of their children in religious rioting and a movie star-struck slum boy defecating under the open sky falls into a slush of excreta. Children get their eyes burnt with acid, and girls are forced into brothels by rakish young men.

Dharavi slum in Mumbai
Slumdog is based in Mumbai's teeming slums

On the eve of the film's release in India, NGOs invite reporters to meet the "real slumdogs". "Off the back of Slumdog Millionaire," says one invitation in my inbox, "we can offer access to the slums of Delhi and interview opportunities with the real 'slumdogs' - children who live in absolute poverty every day."

Poverty, like a lot of things, is good business in a free market. But India is also exceedingly cruel to its poor and callous towards its children, and is one of the most unequal societies in the world.

I have no issues with Boyle's cheery depiction of the resilience of slum children and the sunny side of slum life: it is part of the unchanging popular oriental stereotype of poverty equals slums equals dirty, smiling children. Been there, seen that.

In fact, Indians appear to have come to terms with Western filmmakers' depiction of the country's crushing poverty.

I remember the sets - a vast slum, what else? - of Roland Joffe's multi-million dollar City of Joy, starring Patrick Swayze, being firebombed by arsonists in the city of Calcutta in the early 1990s. They charged him with selling poverty. Joffe had to pack up his bags, leave the city and finish the film at London's Pinewood studios.

My quibble with Slumdog Millionaire lies elsewhere. The film doesn't move me.

I suspect what Boyle tries to do is a Bollywood film - the dirt-poor lost brothers, unrequited love - with dollops of gritty realism. But at the end of it all, it is a pretty callow copy of a genre which only the Indians can make with the élan it deserves.

The realism skims the surface, and in spite of some decent performances, style dominates over substance. And the film does not grip me in the way, say, the story of the life in Rio de Janeiro's favelas in the 2002 Brazilian crime drama City of God did.

See also:
A dangerous fairy tale

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