Thursday, December 11, 2008

Loving Slumdog. From afar.

My news feed on Google has been swarming with articles, reviews and news stories about Slumdog Millionaire over the last month or so. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times gave it an impressive review, and Roger Ebert suggested way back in early November that it might land a nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars. Now, everyone's talking about it. The film won the awards for Best British Independent Film, Best Director (Danny Boyle) and Most Promising Newcomer (Dev Patel) at the British Independent Film Awards. Way back at the Toronto Festival (which is where Ebert first saw it) it won the Audience Award. Now, with the kind of appreciation the film is getting, an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (and then some) looks more and more likely.

I'm not saying it's a bad film. I just have a few issues with it, that's all.

Somini Sengupta writes from London, on the making of Slumdog. Her first point: Boyle found in Mumbai "what has all but vanished from cinema here at home: life in extremis." Her second point: he also lost control over the process. As she says,

In Mumbai, which is also known as Bombay, thousands of people gathered every time he started shooting "Slumdog Millionaire" on the streets. Permits were delayed, then granted in the nick of time. Sometimes the city morphed overnight, as new construction sites came up and down. Best-laid plans proved useless. India took over. Kindly adjust, it seemed to say. “You have to let go,” is how Mr. Boyle described the experience this month, in an interview on tamed, temperate Long Acre here. “You don’t act omnipotent. You have to let whatever is there get into the film.”

Sengupta's article conjures a vivid, entertaining image of an English filmmaker used to the cool, steel-gray efficiency of studios, harassed in India by the heat, the traffic, the bureaucracy and people. Oh yes, the people - swarming, teeming, spilling into the frame from every direction, refusing to step out. Admittedly, this image may not be entirely inaccurate. For Boyle, the experience of filming on the streets of Mumbai must have been tough as hell. I can imagine how the heat, for instance, can be debilitating for someone used to cold, wet weather. Not to mention an unfamiliarity with the language and culture. It's like taking just a long, deep breath before hurling yourself headlong into the smelly, marshy habitat of the 'Other'. Quite like a scene in the film, where the protagonist Jamal Malik, as a little boy, clips his thumb and forefinger on his nose and plunges into a pit of rotting faeces.

The problem, of course, is that there is little evidence of this plunge in the film itself. The view the film takes is one that comes not from the scraggly gullies of Mumbai, but from a vantage point far, far away, where the smell of faeces does not reach. A place like tamed, temperate Long Acre, maybe?

I'm the kind of cinephile who takes a while forming properly articulated opinions about films. Most often, as I'm stepping out of a darkened cinema theatre, the most I can come up with is a quiet "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." To come up with reasons for either, I need to sleep over it. After watching Slumdog, I mumbled, mostly to myself, "I don't think I like it." I didn't, really, even as I was watching it, but I was befuddled because I was possibly one of three people in the cinema hall who were feeling this way. People around me (white Americans, mostly) were expressing every emotion you could possibly think your facial muscles could contract and dilate into. Watch them seethe with anger at Jamal's torture at the hands of a policeman. Watch them swell with pride at the hundred dollar bill handed to him by American tourists. Watch them cry when he loses the love of his life and then his brother. Watch them cry again, when love overcomes all, and truth and goodness triumph. Watch them give the film a standing ovation.

After an initial discussion, I came up with a number of flaws in the film. The plot was very simplistic. And way too contrived. I haven't read Vikas Swarup's Q & A, the book behind the screenplay, but the narrative of the film fell a little too neatly into place for my liking. Ok, as Boyle has said over and over again (and so many others have said for him) the film is, in many ways, an homage to '60s and '70s Bollywood cinema. That easily explains away the simplistic story, the clean division of narrative space and characterisation into black and white, the inevitable triumph of love, the hackneyed plot point of redemption for a brother gone astray and even the sudden explosion of song and dance with the end credits. What it doesn't explain is the overwhelmed reaction of an intelligent cinema audience. Not to mention the crazed reception of the film across the western world. If a similar homage were made to Hollywood instead of Bollywood, it might still be a box office success, but as film criticism goes, it would find a place in the annals of camp, not highbrow culture. Why has Slumdog turned out to be such an influential film?

I think it's because "paying homage" apart, Slumdog is a narrative about Third World poverty. Unlike other such narratives, though, it is a very, very shrewd film. It touches all the right cords - it knows exactly who its preferred audience is, and it knows how to get to them. It knows what they wish to see, and how. To chronicle Third World poverty is often a part of the white West's process of self definition. Slumdog Millionaire, however, does it the perfect way in that it maintains the right amount of distance. As the camera glides through the filth, the faeces, the slums and the rush of colour of Mumbai, it does so in a manner that aestheticise them. When Jamal and his brother, orphaned and scared, look for shelter in the rain, it is beautiful. When Jamal's childhood sweetheart fails to escape and is recaptured by the bad guys, it is artistic. When little Jamal runs through the tiny, claustrophobic bylanes of the most sprawling slum in the world, it is romantic. The film is beautiful. Everyone's saying it, and I agree. But it's just the sort of contemplative, sanitised beauty that allows you to be a part of another, grueling life while being safely removed from it. That was my only problem.

Not that it matters, though. I really don't think I was the intended audience.


  1. Yay..!!! Thank you for speaking the truth..!

    But wait, actually, hasn't literature always done this? Romanticized poverty and suffering?

    Yes, it has. Think of Balzac shivering in his attic, writing poetry and prose, with his candle, his bread and his wine. And then he writes great words, and so lifts himself into the realm of the worshiped, the heavenly. Think of Cinderella and her happy end (don't laugh, she's a major archetype; eg., _Memoirs of a Geisha_). I could go on and on and on...

    I think there is something larger and deeper here, and that is, _what_ is it in us that draws us to revel in the beauty of suffering, and _why_?

    Because I will admit, I have been drawn to this very notion of suffering, with the condition that it be at a beautiful remove, since I was a little girl. Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, etc. These things must speak to some primal instinct, or their appeal would not be so enduring.

  2. I believe you're right, about the fact that not only literature, but art in general, has always made a living out of romanticizing poverty and suffering. The image of Balzac is a favourite of mine, as is, in a very different way, Van Gogh, towards the end of his life (which was most productive artistically), sitting in his room in the asylum, looking out at the stars.

    There must be several reasons why this appeals to human nature, I can think of two up front. Firstly, I think it lends a sense or heroicism that is missing from our lives on an everyday basis. Even in my relatively privileged setting, I find it so difficult to be able to churn out a piece of work, even if mediocre. And then when I think of, well, Balzac, I see a heroism there that is inspirational.
    Secondly - and this is where the problem lies, because this happens mostly with narratives of the Third World - there is a process of distancing oneself from such narratives which allows us to define ourselves in opposition to this Other that we're watching on screen/reading about in a book. While again this is a part of how I think human nature works, I believe this is a problem because it makes us place ourselves outside the circle so as to not be contaminated by it, and then speak with authority about what goes on within it. Isn't it?