Saturday, June 20, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire – a post hype review


(this was written a week before the oscars)

A pip-squeak of dissent is peeping through the fog of euphoria.

Slumdog was going straight to DVD but it was pulled from that fate and lo – 10 Oscar noms?

I said, Really?

If people like their social realism packaged like a cake of detergent with large letters and bold graphic design, so be it. Flock to the cinemas and let Fox Searchlight clean up behind them, but ‘masterpiece’, ‘brilliant’?


Even last year’s best pic winner – the scorching No Country For Old Men by Hollywood outsiders, Joel and Ethan Coen, would find it uncomfortable dragging that kind of obligation around.

So what to make of the universal, unquestioning adulation Slum has received from the world? Why are ordinary people are finding this ordinary film exceptional?

I guess public perception is driven increasingly towards homogeneity and stick figure fantasies sell easier than nuanced realities blah, blah, blah. We know all about hegemony. More Blah Blah Blah.

What Slum interestingly shows is the power of mass conversion, and how advocates are made in this world of instant coffee; where generic, uncomplicated social realism is intravenously consumed – no need to tax the taste buds here, needle straight to the blood stream and the rest is a joy-ride through wonderland.

All of it made even artistic by the slick, visceral visual style of an unquestionably talented director at the height of his magic; squalor throbbing to the the pulsating grooves of a talented composer; and populated by unidimensional munchkins masquerading as people thanks to an unrelenting screenplay by a fine screenwriter, though one that seems to be written at the first-class bar in the nine hours it takes to fly Virgin Atlantic to Bombay.

A miscast lead, the tortured, awkward Londoner nearly equalled the embarrassment of Sir Alec Guiness in brown paint and lungi (harking back to the awkward reincarnation of Obi-Wan-Kanobi as Godbole, the Hindu priest in Sir David Lean’s Passage To India). In the case of Slumdog Millionaire, this time the British casting director left the cosy corridors of RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) stepped out of the familiar streets of Kensington and braved the wilderness of Wembly or Southall to deliver a casting coup of sorts.

No, she didn’t do even that.

Someone at Danny’s local saw their Dev Patel on a popular television show. The color was brown this time and the accent slightly North London but hey remember, colonialism is long behind us. The rest, including Dev’s unfortunate north London accent jerked me so hard out of the film each time he opened his mouth that I felt I was being shunted around through Bombay in a taxi without suspension.
Wither the emotional connect of Kaun Banega Crorepati hosts Shah Rukh and Amitabh Bachan with their middle class audience – the bond of affection, encouragement, love even – and whither this portrayal of the same game-show…? Every adult in Boyle’s Bombay is uniformly evil and twisted – but none more so than the crabby talkshow host. Contorting his way through contrived and overly plotted devices – c’mon, who uses hot water to wash hands in sweaty Bombay, other than a talk show host who has to write the wrong answer on a mirror – seemed a tad convenient didn’t it, Mr. Beufoy? And just to vindicate his overblown reaction to Dev Patel’s triumphant march through improbable knowledge, like a taxi in Andheri, we are asked to suspend disbelief to spring-busting limits. A two line throw away bathroom accounts for Mr. Kapoor’s bizarre behavior…

Noh! Really? HE was a slumdog too.

‘I have it all, I come from where you did, and I will make sure your ascent is stymied’. There you have it too – the famed Indian crab mentality covered by what’s rapidly becoming the great Indian film. Another box checked.

As to the hammy love affair between Mr. P and the to-be misses, suffice to say, my skin crawled as it became alarmingly apparent that this was the motor, the engine, the flux capacitor of Slumdog Millionaire. ‘No’ I screamed inside, ‘this can not be the reason why I am watching this movie’.

But, what of the children! Those wonderfully innocent, wide-eyed, mischievous slum-pups, who jumped on trains, got their eyes taken out, sang plaintively – weren’t they just brilliant? And what of the imagery – the Star-Trek child-Krishana energized into a Hindu-Muslim riot, the Taj Mahal appearing in the gold-dust of tumbling kids. B’jeez, this film has magical realism too – its grog that would make Tim Burton flush.

I, for one, was having nightmares. Images of matka-filling-belle-at-village-well-and-the-jhatka-of-the-walking-across-the-dunes-in-the-slanting-suns-of-the-twilight-hour – yes, that kind of cringe movie; the heaving of the collective Indian mid-riff, the fakirs on a bed of nails and the snake-charmer before it; in the rich tradition of Sabu and Godbole – aye, Danny, that’s the rub – that really sold it to ‘em.

Unfortunately, if and when the magical cow-dust is allowed to settle, the film did not amount to more than an entertaining, larger than life (overlong) music video celebrating an ascent of a cartoon character from crap. But with marketing dollars strapped to it like an emergency parachute, its managed to pull off nothing short of a miraculous leap out of DVD hell screaming – ‘we are legit cause we can slum wash, and do it doggedly, till we do it so much that everyone says so, we’ll keep barking till you buy the ticket, tune-in and pick up the DVD version too’.

This is 21st century entertainment by a decidedly 20th century fox who figured that once the obligatory box of social relevance is checked, its all legit; in their euphoric way members of the academy, the Globers, the Screeners, even the BAFTAS shall obediently fall into line.

This is briefer-than-match-light illumination of a dark continent for the underexposed waspy American (who’s box office drives the global film business), who is (of late) finding it kinda cool to engage with the rest of the world. Perhaps its because of the new dude in the white house, perhaps its a seeking of enlightenment cause America is searching for its soul, being out of work makes people introspective, meaning-of-life questions appear meaningful. Perhaps its simpler than that. Just a purging of collective guilt through a convenient screen, or even the visceral thrill of catching a fleeting glimpse of poverty – a wide-eyed backpacking teenager – ready to absorb, believe and frighteningly conclude without history, geography; without context or parameters.

Whatever the state of the world, and the complicated forces that contribute to public sentiment, Slumdog Millionaire is not a cinematic masterpiece.

Sorry. It just ‘aint.

I watch a lot of entertaining yet soulless films and after the obligatory post-film-dinner conversation, in which the falafel off a freeway in Los Angeles feels more authentic than the film that preceded it, the memory eases into the recycle bin of images – a blur.

Slumdog engaged me in a simmilar way. I saw the film a few months ago at a Fox premiere in LA, and similarly forgot about it till now – that is, till the universal adulation and the carpet bombing of awards. I was forced to sit up and wonder whether the world had gone collectively cuckoo.

There are films that slam you in the gut, that take the wind of out you, that render you speechless, that wrench your heart till you think its going to pop, that cause a rock to form in your throat, that creep under your skin – films that make you squirm and realize how shitty things really are or those that lift your spirit in a collective sigh. There are films that reveal something between the folds of our world, or show us mindscapes twisted or elevated, or landscapes that make us gasp. From those cinematic experiences we emerge stunned, educated, sensitized, horrified, mesmerized.

Trainspotting, for instance, was one such film.

I don’t doubt the sincerity and genuine effort on Mr. Boyle’s part to frame the milieu in which this unfortunate yarn is set; and by all accounts, he is a humble, generous man. A great spirit on set and saintly to those who come in touch with him. But for all his goodness and talent this is potential belied, a promise unfulfilled and particularly so, because it was Bombay, it was India and it was Danny Boyle. And this is one that I REALLY wanted to like.
Hmm. Anyway, enjoy the Oscars but don’t go looking for Bombay here – you may not find it.

No comments: