Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?

Slumdog Millionaire
Indians, eh? It is the contradiction in us that makes us who we are. The diversity, the different viewpoints, and always, always the vociferous opinions that bring forth the most argumentative parts out in us. We love a good argument, let’s not mince that out and the bigger the success the bigger the argument about the validity of the success, the importance of restraint, and the calls to be contradictory just to be contradictory.

I’ve been amusingly reading a lot of articles and opinions on the Oscar sweep that Slumdog Millionaire affected by it’s 8 out of 9 wins (it was never 10, remember this children.) It has been entirely hilarious reading oppositions to its name, and the protests against it depicting Mumbai slums as Mumbai slums. Actors like Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan have been very PC about disliking the film, albeit with Aamir actually calling it over the top.

Let’s just say that I don’t think anyone making films for a living and a shame sheet of his own gets to diss another film for anything. Ever. Joel Schumacher does not get to call the Ed Norton Hulk film campy. Aamir needs to work off Mangal Pandey and Mann (especially Mann) and Mela before he gets to say any film made by anyone else was over the top. Just out of curiosity though, Aamir: in your opinion, was it more believable than Lagaan, or less? Bachchan’s comparisons to Delhi 6 are more earnest – he simply does not seem to get the difference between subtlety of meaning and nailing a conviction with a hammer.

Then there are the many, many different articles trying to make sense of what they see as unreasonable euphoria for the Slumdog Oscars. Tunku Varadarajan’s largely cacophonic take on it in the Times (pointed out to us by Sidin via twitter) is extremely stupid, of course. He asks the question a lot of people think is valid: how can the same people who thought the film is a blemish, a shame unto us, are now celebrating the wins by going over the top? Answer: they’re not. If you cannot think that a people can have different voices, and that they will get different weightage (there’s an Asian word for ya) in the media coverage simply because of the topicality, I’m sorry, but you are simply calling attention to you being dense or a compulsive contrarian or quite possibly, both.

I liked the film when I saw it, I like it still, and I like the fact that it won a prize. How hard is that to understand? Heath Ledger winning the Oscar made scores of comic book geeks very happy. Where is the problem in that? If Martin Scorsese has been neglected by the very same awards all his life and that makes me angry as a film buff, am I trying to assert ownership over the work of that master director? I’m not, all I’m saying is that I like his films, and it would make me happy if he did win every now and then. Indrajit Hazra (a man I much respect) on his blog does mention that

all credit should go to Boyle (not to England) and to the actors…as well as the fab let-nothing-ungushy-be-said-about-him A.R. Rahman and Resul Pookutty. It should not go to India and, er, ‘all of us’.

I agree, but important to consider here is the fact that all anyone seems to be doing is celebrating the win of one of our own in an international event. If eleven men can be carried on a Billion shoulders to their coronation as lords and Kings simply by playing a sport for an independent board of sport, surely we can fête a soft spoken sound editor and an awe-inspiring composer? It’s a call for sanity, and I am with him through and through, but I do think that toasting the success of someone amongst us is a quality that all Indians could have more of.

Of course people tend to be more pragmatic and mention that the film is an international film directed by a British (a lot of people think he’s a Scot, he’s not) and distributed by an American studio, so hey bud-dy, hey palll, chill out, won’tcha? Don’t just jump for joy, be cool. Be very, very cool.

I can see where they are coming from. Of course restraint is called for, and of course we need to realize that it was never our film. Of course, if there’s one thing the middle class has learnt over the many, many years of grooming to be more like the West, is to act cool, to abandon the wanton junglee-ness of the lesser peoples, to not dance on the streets, yaar.

As much as it pains me to say this, I tend to agree with something Vir Sanghvi said on his blog:

And yet, so much of Slumdog is Indian.

He comes at it from the point of view that much of the supporting cast, the original novel, the talented crew, including the oft forgotten co-director are all Indian. Sure, but so was more or less the case with Gandhi. Gandhi, as much as I like that film, DDL cameo and all, was not an Indian film. Attenborough came with a certain fascination with The Mahatma, and an amused enchantment with the passion that dictates us as a people. He managed to capture a lot of history in that film, and it was very strong thematically, but it always felt as a well educated guess of a foreigner trying to understand India.

I am not claiming Slumdog to be a thorough dissection of the Indian psyche, if there is such a collective thing, but it is unreservedly Indian. The film does not glorify our mysticism and our small triumphs, and neither does it try to show us a picture of horror which is the normal life of an impoverished child. It just shows it as it is, albeit through the impossibly stained glasses of the fatalist. And in that, it is an Indian film. We can go back and forth about the relative merit of the film as a best picture, but in this point I remain unswerving.

Boyle films it with a mix of his own kinetic, hyper detailed style and what we have come to accept as nouveau Bollywood, and uses his lens to direct our attention to what is not just an Indian story, but The India story. If you cannot see parallels of our nation in the story of Jamaal – a young impoverished, oft used, oft suffering person, growing up, learning new tricks of the trade, but with his mad optimism intact, and finally winning it all in a sweepstake with many, many stumbles, not because he could, but because it was his destiny – I urge you to watch it again. If you cannot see the Indian-ness of the story, the half-lingering, half reverential shots, the celebration of all our triumphs, the hard work to win small shit-stained ones, and the big ones we win by fighting for love, and indeed the whole film the way it is put together, you do a great disservice to a crew that worked hard to do so.

Of course, Danny Boyle is not one of us, and neither is Christian Colson, but for the few months they made this little gem of a film, they tried very hard to be. Don’t dust off your Bharat Ratnas just yet, but saying you are glad a good film, and an Indian film in all but name, won the best picture does not make you a less proud Indian, or a more over the top one. It’s another matter if you didn’t like it all that much, and that is a discussion for another day.

Slumdog Millionaire

No, fuck it. I am writing after many days, so yes, it is a discussion for right bloody now.

I love that film. Unabashedly. Not simply because it is an Indian film, but because it gets it more than a lot of films do. It is a multilayered masterclass in film making that you have to see to believe. No really see, with eyes wide open. The film asks you a question, asking you to participate in the rollercoaster quiz show right at the outset. Literally, the film flashes the question and four options right in your face. Slowly, methodically, it eliminates those answers in front of you, leaving you with the jackpot answer – it was his destiny.

Indians don’t love like most people think of love. Despite any façade a Metro boy will put up in front of you, when Indians love, they love like madmen, and without thought of what happens next. That the film gets that, and gets it not just in the main story, but in all of it is a feat. That it also gets the simple, ugly facet of Indian-ness that we are sometimes not euphoric over the success of another fellow is a testament to the honesty of the film. It is a fantasy, of course, and it could all be Jamaal’s fantasy, accentuated by the never more Bollywood moment when he thinks of taking his brother down a high-rise with him.

It is a unique physical experience, watching this film. It is staggering that despite the time Boyle spends explaining just how much it sucks to be a poor orphan from the slums, the celebrations are much more memorable than the defeats. It has a sentiment, without being sentimental. It’s not a docu-drama, it is a fairy tale, and like all fairy tales, the end explodes with uplift in tone that never leaves you for quite a while.

Sanghvi, in his article goes on to mention that:

Do we really need a Scottish director backed by American money to come to Bombay to make a film of a Vikas Swaroop bestseller starring Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan with songs by Gulzar and A R Rahman?
Obviously, we do. Otherwise it would have been Yash Chopra or somebody like him standing on that stage in the Kodak theatre waving that Oscar around.

First of all, Yash Chopra would never be able to do so, and the reason I can make that claim is the very reason some people have not liked this film. We are too used to being manipulated by our dream peddling cinema that will shy as much as it could from the cruder places in Mumbai. The minority voice of the Kashyaps and the Banerjees is being heard better these days, but not at equal volume with the cacophony of the factory produced fantasy mongering studio films. The reason something as regressive and dishonest as Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi was one of the most celebrated films last year, and a terribly wasteful, not to mention completely gimcrack film like Ghajini was considered a masterpiece is a symptom of the larger problem.

We are too used to the trappings of the bad kind of cinema that Bollywood, or any other cheaply named wood makes that we stepping out of the comfort zone is hard for us. Instead of thoroughly celebrating the triumphs that were Dev D or Oye Lucky, fans are left apologizing for them in a place where the worth of a film is till measured by the money it made. It’s not our fault either.

Bollywood is too exclusive a club. Not only are they completely resistant to the idea of anyone else other than them making films, they are completely resistant to change. Too many of the ‘trade pundit’ or ‘acting institutions’ have given interviews that smack of distaste at the new corporate film houses or the smaller, ‘multiplex’ films. Every step forward is coupled by a jog backwards. If they could, they would make the same film they know how to make again and again. Of course, in the times when ‘different’ is the new ‘safe’, they have made an art form of making an atavistic film with all the bells and whistles of a new wave film.

Of course Bollywood slams Slumdog and disavows it as a bastard child, a freak occurrence. Accepting it as a good film would mean they give their blessings to honest, technically accomplished, thematically rich film making. If they did that, how will they make one like that? Balderdash! That would mean the new kids will win, and we can’t have that, can we?

I am not claiming that just because you didn’t like a film I loved you are a brain dead Bolly-zombie. What I am getting at to is this: I liked the film, as I liked many more this year. I don’t denounce it or celebrate it just because it is an Indian film at heart. I am happy it won as much as I am happy Woody Allen’s fun film gave Cruz a statuette. I just don’t want you to get in my business of liking a film’s win with all your misguided cries of oh, it’s not ours, or oh it’s not special, or oh we suck. Sometimes good cinema is good cinema, regardless of the politics behind it.

I mean, look at Gandhi.

17 thoughts on “Who wants to be a Slumdog Millionaire?

  1. First of all, I think it was @prempanicker and not @sidin who tweeted the times link, no?

    And as much as I’ve read Aamir’s comment, he did not oppose the film. He commented that he personally thought that it was over the top and did not work for “him”. Everyone has like or dislike right? and I too fall in the latter. For me, it was an ordinary movie. Run of the mill typical bollywood movie. and that’s the reason I don’t like it. nothing to do with poverty porn etc. etc.

  2. Dude…article length….

    I’ll get back to you after I finish it which would be, err…when I finish it.

  3. @Nishit, Of course everyone has their own opinion, and right to voice it. You and me, we pay for these films, we have a right to say whatever we please. I am not sure about this – I am on the fence here, but do you think anyone who makes, or has made over the top films himself can comment about someone else’s work.
    Or to put it the other way – a painter has the technical/artistic understanding to judge to work of another painter, but does he have a right to?
    People living in glass houses and all.

  4. The Bollywood is jealous that someone did a better job than them, is what I think. I understand why the Chopras and the Johars are (wrongly) umbrageous but what is up with us common people? The audience? Most of us think it is cool to have an anti opinion on anything which every second person enjoys.

    On a related note, Aamir Khan’s and Amitabh Bachhan’s remarks on the movie reminded me of this teenager who probably watches every third bollywood flick that her cable guy chooses to show when she is not studying. This teenager and our two highly respected film personalities seem to share the same insight into films and the art there is to it. Remind me to pin point the exact incident later.

    PS: How about you keep the words flowing, huh?

  5. Nothing like seeing a husband/wife communicate throught blog comments. Hurray for the new age! :)

    I didn’t like “oye lucky”, I felt Abhay’s acting wasn’t quite upto scratch. It might have been because of the direction or maybe because he’s still relatively new.

    I loved Dev D. More! More like this please!

    The word meh (and I’m sure you will get this) sums up my feelings about Slumdog. To me it was a cross between Parinda (what with the Paro/Latika love of my life I met on the street angle) and a Manmohan Desai movie (except his name isn’t Vijay). This movie really didn’t have an impact on me. Of course, that’s just my opinion and thankfully, s’pore is too far away for you to kill me :P

    I don’t believe art in general should be seen as belonging to a country. I think of art as an intensely personal thing both in production and perception. The movie belongs to Boyle, AR and the other people who worked on it. And as far as I go, that’s that. India/UK/US whatever have nothing to do with it.

    Heck, I think the whole idea of nation states is hopelessly outdated but that it another discussion. As such, when a movie I like wins an award I am glad for the recognition it receives.

    Right, enough rambling, must get back to work. Good write up. Points well presented and possibly the only Slumdog related write up that doesn’t make me want to cover my ears.

  6. My point of Slumdog being India wasn’t meant to convey I felt it belonged to India. In as much as Oye Lucky is a Delhi film – being as it is in the same spirit as seems to pervade Delhi, Slumdog is a very India film – it has the same spirit.

    Of course as a piece of art it has no other duty other than being art. Boyle, ARR, everyone worked hard to bring it to life, and if their is any claim to ownership it IS theirs.

    My point of course being when proponents or fans of art like something, can they not feel happy if their point of view is validated?

  7. Btw, does Opera hate your website or something? The address bar refuses to save it. I’ve you bookmarked anyway but still, bizarre…

  8. Dunno man. But that ould be terrible. My favorite browser in the world hating my website would mean I change my website!

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