Saturday, February 21, 2009
Why is Slumdog Millionnaire getting so much Oscar love?
I finally caught up with Slumdog Millionnaire a week or so ago. Interestingly enough just about everyone I spoke to told me that I wouldn't like it simply because expectations were so high! Bullocks! I enjoyed it precisely because everyone's expectations were so high - and I had much fun dissecting what makes Slumdog such a beloved movie.
In any case enough has been said about Slumdog - but the curious thing is although everyone calls it a feel-good film, I squirmed throughout the entire movie - at least once using my personal favorite technique of peering from under my palm. And despite having a generally good time, I can't say I walked out feeling elated.
Yet there is a good reason Slumdog is so popular with the voting members of the film industry here in the US. But I'll get to my phaltu Drift theory in a second.
First, let's get down to exposing one of my stereotypes which is: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the US - which gives out Oscars - hugely favors Holocaust movies. I'm not alone in thinking or verbalizing this - although I'll almost certainly get a dirty look from the Drift Memsaab when I joke about it.
Most famously in recent times Kate Winslet savagely skewered the Academy's fondness for holocaust pictures in an appearance on Ricky Gervais' vastly underrated show Extras. In one episode, Winslet plays a nun in a (fake) Holocaust flick. Gervais commends Winslet for playing the role.
In a bit that had me chuckling for days, Winslet takes off: "We don't really need another film about the Holocaust do we? I mean, how many have there been? We get it. It was grim, move on! I'm doing this because I've noticed if you do a film about the Holocaust...gauranteed an Oscar!"
Later she complains "The whole world has been going - why has Kate not won one (Oscar)? That's why I'm doing it. Schindler's Bloody List, Pianist, Oscars coming out of their ass!"
First, a quick congratulations to the Academy for ignoring Winslet's silly 'For Your Consideration' in the Best Supporting Actress category and instead rewarding her with a deserving nomination in the more prestigious Best Actress category. I am grateful for the Academy's maturity. But Winslet's nomination comes in a Holocaust themed movie - you can smile at the delicious irony later.
Back to Slumdog - that whole movie plays like a Holocaust flick. The story is triggered by a terrible event that has been known to change the course of history (Hindu-Muslim riots). Its a story about enormous human suffering by innocents at the hands of people who are inexplicably evil. And two protagonists, who represent the goodness that is inherent in human beings, truimph by differentiating themselves from their tormentors instead of imitating them or retaliating in kind.
If you understand the demographic of the Academy and its related history, you know why these themes resonate with them. There is nothing wrong with cultural precedence, of course - as long as its accompanied with awareness. Many of Slumdog's themes are also universal and the Academy constantly strives to broaden its understanding of cultures and cinema - they are not always successful, but the fact that they make an effort is notable, especially when compared with the circuses in other parts of the world (I'm looking at you India).
This coming Sunday, Slumdog is a hot favorite to win Best Picture and vault Danny Boyle on the Best Director podium. Whether it wins or not is immaterial. The Academy has already prostrated itself by nominating Slumdog in a staggering 10 categories. And while watching Slumdog, it wasn't hard for me to imagine why.
Also don't miss: Which of this Falls' Oscar-Baiting Holocaust movies is right for you?
THE SLUMDOG DECEPTION
So much has been said about this issue already, that it is getting nauseating.
Then why am I adding to the mayhem? Good Question, even if I say so myself
One: To take a dispassionate look at the issues minus hype & jingoism. Much of what has been written is inaccurate or based on emotional gut reactions.
Two: Take a look at the book from where this movie was inspired. That would help unravel what actually has been done.
Let’s look at the facts first
* The book was written about four years back – in 2005 and was called “Q & A”. (“was”, because it has been shamelessly renamed and reprinted as “Slumdog Millionaire” now) The author is Vikas Swarup, an officer in the Indian Foreign Services.
* The movie “Slumdog Millionaire” was made, based on this book with a large complement of Indians in the cast, notable among them being Irrfan Khan, Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto and a host of child artistes from slums in Mumbai.
* It was nominated for several awards, BAFTA, GOLDEN GLOBE & of course the OSCARS. These included two to A R Rahman, who scored the music and Resul Pookutty for Sound Mixing.
* At the Oscars, it finally won eight, with the three to the Indians coming through.
(The fact that it bagged the Best Picture award is a travesty on the sanctity of the award itself)
Now the hype that followed
* All national newspapers and TV News channels in India went berserk in their crowing about this major accomplishment of India. (India? The film-maker was a Britisher when I last saw)
* Many of the country’s leaders jumped onto the bandwagon; congratulating the winners (Nothing new in this, it happens all the time. Anybody in the world with a remote Indian gene is feted on their success. Remember Bobby Jindal, Sunita Williams, et al? But we’ll let it pass. Rahman after all is an Indian. Even if many find his composition below par here, he has created some great music in the past)
* And the rest of the janata followed, lapping it up. Glorying in the fact that India or Indians are being mentioned on the world stage. Golly! The Goras have noticed that we exist. Just like the spate of Miss Worlds & Miss Universes had dazzled the world a decade back. (Speaking of the beauty contests, have Indian girls suddenly become ugly after that? Or were they ugly before? Or both?)
* The ruling UPA Government went on to appropriate this as one of the victories of their tenure. (Huh! What was that? In what way was the UPA Govt responsible for this? But it did give me a clue of what was going on)
* Another article by Chidananda Rajghatta in the TOI made me sit up and take notice. He called this a triumph for India’s plurality. (Plurality? Where did that come from? We are still talking of a movie, right?)
To get some more clarity, one must go back to the book. I had read the book in 2005, but the details were hazy. So I read it again and looked at what had been done to it.
There are many differences.
Ø For starters, the boy's name is Ram Mohammad Thomas in the book. This is because he is an orphan and nobody knows what religion his parents were. He gets this name in a strange manner, but uses it at various times in a cynical way to get ahead in life, assuming Hindu, Christian & Muslim identities as per convenience. This is a key element in the book - contrived, but essential to the story. In the movie, he became just Jamaal, a Muslim. Why?
Ø He stays in a slum only for a very brief part of his life - at the end. Otherwise, he moves from a church to an orphanage to a film actress's house to an Australian diplomat's bungalow & a chawl too. He shuttles between Delhi, Bombay & Agra. A chawl is also such a powerful symbol for life in Bombay. Why does the movie focus only on the slum?
Ø He is an orphan and has no known siblings or knowledge of his parents. Salim is his friend and he meets him at the orphanage. Even the mutilation of beggars in the Fagin-like den of Bombay is only spoken of. The kids never see it happening. Salim has a much smaller role in the book.
Ø There is no childhood sweetheart called Latika (Freida Pinto) in the book. He falls in love with a whore in Agra. She appears very briefly in the book. So all that bull about doing this whole thing for love alone is wrong. He has other motives which are elaborated in the book.
Ø There is a girl lawyer in the book who rescues him and has a key role. She isn't in the movie at all. The sadistic police inspector's role gets stretched instead.
Ø In the movie, one of the questions is about the Ramayana and he guesses it because of a flashback where his mother is killed by militant fundamentalist Hindus - one of them actually dressed like Rama. Again not in the book.
Ø That famous scene where the young Jamaal jumps into a pit full of shit to get an autograph of Amitabh Bachchan - again a fabrication….rubbing it in... literally! Can you imagine something like that actually happening? Then why show it?
There's more, but you get the drift I think. All these changes are acts of commission – deliberate and pre-meditated. A movie is not a speech, where a mistake could be a slip of tongue. It takes many people and a lot of time to make a movie. One change can be a coincidence. So many cannot.
Systematically the book has been "secularized" (read - made Islam friendly)
One reason could be that this was meant for a guilt-ridden western audience who must be crying tears of blood for all the 'innocent' Muslim blood shed in the Afghanistan & Gulf wars. So make a Muslim boy win the lottery. Self-flagellation and appeasement - together in a classy package.
Or probably they feel threatened by the new India. It’s so much better to feel sorry for such a down-at-the heels country like India. After all, we weren't expected to last beyond a few years after they gifted us independence.
So they portray us like this - dirty slum dwellers. How dare we even talk about our progress? This is where we are - in a slum for perpetuity and where we must be. Take that you bloody upstarts!
I agree that the book is no classic. It is not "To kill a Mockingbird"... not by a long shot, no. But it is immensely readable. I had finished it in two sittings. It just races. The plot is pretty contrived and too much has been stuffed in, but the strong central idea of the underdog winning in the end carries it through to the climax, in spite of a lot of plot-holes, logical jumps and sheer flights of fancy.
The book is balanced in the one area that matters – its treatment of India and the Indian psyche. It shows the country in a true light – warts and all. No attempt has been made to play to the gallery where religion, caste or any other issue is concerned. It definitely does not paint India as a country where Muslims are the Indian equivalent of Negroes, a la The USA some fifty years back or South Africa some twenty years back. The movie however manages to convey just that.
And I’m not okay with that. No Sir.
The author may have sold out for thirty pieces of silver, but I’m not being fooled by this mediocre movie – for being made in the first place and for being feted as the best movie of the year. AND for being trumped as some kind of reality pill for Indians – that’s the biggest joke of all – calling those who dislike this crappy movie as spoilsports.
As for A R Rahman & Pookutty – good for them – they deserve their time in the sun. Danny Boyle and his cohorts can however go boil an egg. They laid it after all.