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.