On the eve of its release today in India, the British independent film “Slumdog Millionaire” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. It’s already won four Golden Globes: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Score. The movie’s up for all of those categories at the Oscars, and may well win some if not all of them, and then some.
We saw the film just last weekend and I was stunned by its power and eloquence, and for me, its sheer entertainment value in spite of the grimness of the life it portrays. It deserves its kudos.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the story of a two orphaned brothers from the slums of Bombay — now Mumbai — and their relationship as they survive their childhood and grow into their destinies. One, Jamal, played as an adult by the boyish Dev Patel, falls in love with an orphaned girl, Latika (luminously played as an adult by Freida Pinto).
Jamal’s devotion to Latika, even though they’re repeatedly separated, sometimes for years, and his dedication to finding her again, is the film’s narrative thread.
But “Slumdog”‘s visual leitmotif is the chaotic and tragic backdrop of modern Indian life. The story follows the characters from childhood through their teen years and into adulthood, in and out of the utter poverty that pervades the teeming slums. It’s structured as a series of flashbacks with Jamal, who’s been arrested for suspicion of cheating after winning 10 million rupees on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” explaining to a detective how he came to know all the answers he was asked on the show.
His life experiences coincidentally gave him the knowledge and prepared him to reach the next day’s final question, for a possible payoff of 20 million rupees.
Almost immediately, viewers are taken on a breathless tour of the shantytown as a group of kids are chased by police, the camera moving as if the audience is one of the fleeing kids, looking for the next escape route. Then the view shifts to the cops’ perspective, or others in the alleys, even a sleeping dog who’s not the slightest bit fazed by all the commotion. The colors, the clatter and closed-in settings convey claustrophia … and incredible excitement.
The movie opens up visually and feels pastoral only when the brothers get out of town atop a train and live like hobos, then spend some time scamming tourists at the Taj Mahal, and in one striking scene where the grownup Jamal meets up with his brother Salim (played by Madhur Mittal), now a low-level gangster, in a skyscraper construction site high above where their shantytown had been located.
Modern Mumbai’s financial wealth has paved over the poverty and pushed the poor elsewhere.
There’s tragedy throughout the story: Jamal and Salim’s mother is killed when Hindus riot and swarm through their Muslim ghetto. The brothers meet Latika when they’re ‘saved” by an orphanage, only to find out it’s run by a gangster who uses orphans to beg for money — even gouging out their eyes because blind children make more money. Jamal and Salim escape the orphanage but Latika is left behind, and she’s groomed as a prostitute, and later, a mobster’s moll.
There’s tragedy at the end too, but also happiness. It’s an oddly sappy, old-style Hollywood story. Or is it new-style Bollywood? The credits roll as the cast and extras jump into a wonderful, surreal Bollywood musical dance number.
The movie shows us India, but it was directed by a European, British filmmaker Danny Boyle, who made his name with the British drama “Trainspotting.” The screenplay, an adaptation of a novel by Indian author Vikas Swarup, was written by another Brit, Simon Beaufoy, the wordsmith behind the hit 1997 comedy, “The Full Monty.”
Although as an audience member, I enjoyed the movie and thought it was terrific, I wondered if it accurately portrayed the bleakness of life in India.
Like many Americans, I don’t know a lot about the reality of India. We know the Taj Mahal, and see the gleaming glass and steel of Mumbai’s financial districts. We’re reminded of the potential for violence there when there are bombings, or the recent terrorist attacks. We know the cuisine because we love to eat at Indian restaurants. We know there’s long-standing tension between India and Pakistan, but most of us barely know anything about India’s relationships with the other neighboring states like Kashmir, Bangladesh and that counrty on the other side of Pakistan, Afghanistan.
It’s impossible for us to understand the day-to-day reality of India’s lower social strata. I assume “Slumdog”‘s peek at that side of India is accurate, but am wary, since the movie was made by non-Indians.
Back in the good old days when Satyajit Ray often made the most sublime neo-realistic cinema, one Ms. Nargis Dutt caustically charged him with selling Indian poverty abroad. Yet, Satyajit Rayâ€s films did not feature Calcutta’s slums but the villages of Bengal. There was an undercurrent of poverty in his major films like Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Pratidwandhi but there was human irony. No romanticizing poverty yet ultimately a resounding affirmation of human dignity. Who can forget the immortal scene in Aparajito where a guilt ridden Apu, a poor Brahmana boy rejects his priestly duties towards his motherâ€s last rites and opts to pursue a modern education instead. Ray’s father was a Brahmo and he himself a recalcitrant Hindu, yet his cinema encompassed everything that represented the best and the worst of Indian civilization ethos. …
But contemporary film making seems to have appreciated little of these ground realities; instead we find a rehash of the old and improbable rags to riches story in an ultra-regressive style. A magnificent Mumbai slum, two Muslim brothers, a Hindu mob killing innocent Muslim women, criminally amputated children singing Surdasâ€s songs, Hindu policemen torturing an innocent Muslim boy and a diabolic Hindu game-show host who hands his Muslim contestant to his Hindu police which hates the Amnesty international, and voila, you have all the ingredients for a â€œsecularâ€ potboiler which is on the road to the Oscars! You might argue that it’s not realistic but only fantasy since there is greater probability of winning the jackpot on a lottery ticket without being abused by the police than winning the top prize on a quiz show with 15 unique questions.
An activist working with a Mumbai slum-dwellers group has even filed a lawsuit against one of the film’s stars, Anil Kapoor (a well-known Bollywood star who plays the game show host) and the composer of the movie’s soundtrack, A.R. Rahman, for working on a film that uses the word “slumdog” — which he considers a slur — in the title. Tapeshwar Vishwakarma isn’t suing Boyle or the other British filmmakers, but he says Indians should know better. I’m not sure how this suit will stand up in court, but it shows some people in India are going to be less than thrilled by the movie.
Forget the twitter about aggrieved national sentiment. For, “Slumdog Millionaire” is neither poverty porn nor slum tourism. No, unlike what the desi nationalists’ blogosphere claims, it is not a case of the infamous western eye ferreting out oriental squalor and peddling it as the exotic dirt bowl of the east. No, “Slumdog Millionaire” is just a piece of riveting cinema, meant to be savoured as a Cinderella-like fairy tale, with the edge of a thriller and the vision of an artist. It was never meant to be a documentary on the down and out in Dharavi. And it isn’t.
Danny Boyle actually treads into familiar territory. He takes the typical Bollywood tale of two brothers who have only one mission in life: survival. And he takes them through the usual ups and downs that we have witnessed so many times in the best and the worst of Bollywood masala: the tenements, the riots, the underworld, the brothels, the streets, the gutters, the stations, the separations, the reunions, the friendships, the rivalry, love, longing, despair…followed by final victory. And this heartwarming stayin’ alive saga unfolds dramatically against the backdrop of Mumbai’s underbelly, which stands by as a throbbing witness to the coming-of-age of its three protagonists, the three musketeers, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), Salim Malik (Madhur Mittal) and Latika (Frieda Pinto).
NPR today also had a report about both the rave reviews and the controversy and backlash against the movie’s depiction of poverty.
We’ve seen some Indian cinema before, so we’re not completely unfamiliar with life in the continent. I didn’t think the movie romanticized the poverty of Mumbai. I’ve asked South Asian friends if they’ve seen the movie, and they haven’t yet, though they plan to.
I even love the kinetic, new-India-meets-old soundtrack (composer A.R. Rahman was nominated for an Oscar), and before I forget, the young kids and teens who portrayed the younger Jamal, Latika and Salim were also terrific.
I hope “Slumdog Millionaire” is as accepted in India as it has become popular here. Beyond the question of cultural accuracy, I have to admit, I thought it was just a plain old-fashioned great movie.
Postscript, 8 Feb. 2009: I spoke to an Indian American journalist last night at an AAJA-Denver chapter event, who was born in Delhi, and she says she liked the movie and wasn’t offended by its portrayal. She was upset by it, however, precisely because she thought it was very accurate. “It hit very close to home,” she said. She’s saddened by the enormity of the class gap and level of poverty in India.