Slumdog Millionaire Review and the Amitabh Bachchan controversy
Slumdog Millionaire is a love story rather than a story about India’s poverty. Yes, the poverty is there constantly, hanging like a noose around Jamal’s neck. Poverty is the backdrop of the movie, and the director, Danny Boyle, uses every possible aspect of Indian poverty that he knows to make this story come alive.
The movie has a raw feel to it. As if the director has taken a magnifying glass and showed up all the warts without flinching – the crime, the corrupt police, the filth, prostitution, communal riots, the inhuman conditions in the slums, the garbage heaps, beggar gangs, and the life of street children. He has sewn all these elements together into one story and that hits you hard. It is meant to.
A recent Indian tale of street children, Traffic Signal, one of my favourite movies, seems positively sanitized as compared to Slumdog.
But this does not mean that Boyle has exaggerated anything. He has simply told the truth, although in the way of film directors – dramatically! He serves it up in the space of 121 minutes, by making almost everything bad happen to his lead characters. The unpleasantness of it all hits you right between the eyes and wrenches your heart out. That’s what his movie aims to do.
The scene where they show the slum “toilet” is one that I doubt any Indian director would have shown this close. But it’s a scene that western audiences will lap up, and why not. It is an example of how terrible our sanitation is. We know its horrors, but they don’t. The movie is clearly aimed at western audiences, whether knowingly or unknowingly.
Sure, Boyle’s movie doesn’t explain why so many children become street children, just why Jamal (Dev Patel) and Salim (Madhur Mittal) do. It doesn’t explain why street kids become beggars, just why Jamal and Salim do. But that’s because this isn’t a documentary. It’s a story about two brothers, told in an almost Bollywood style! Dramatic and unbelievable.
I was really happy to see Boyle expose the adult gangs behind the child beggars. Bhandarkar has done this too, in Traffic Signal, the first movie of its kind in Indian cinema, but for some reason our critics had trashed Traffic Signal. I remember being puzzled by that! Thankfully it went on to win a National award which means that we aren’t that myopic.
Boyle’s depiction in far more effective than Bhandarkar’s…perhaps because he had a real story to tell, and he did not hesitate to show it harshly. Boyle is almost merciless in the depiction of street life and poverty in India.
Slumdog is a well edited, tight, fast moving film, and carries you along with all the implausibilities in the story.
Yes, the story is unbelievable, but well, that’s cinema for you. And it’s good crowd pleasing cinema. Not great cinema though. I am quite sure that our Indian critics would never have raved about this movie this much had it been made by an Indian director and if they hadn’t known that this was “Oscar” material.
This is what a Washington Post critic says about the film (he liked it by the way) and I agree:
…outlandishly contrived plot, “Slumdog Millionaire” could easily be relegated to the category of cinematic stunt… sounds like a fairy tale, and thinking of it as such is the best way to encounter “Slumdog Millionaire.” (If the audience doubts the film’s underlying sense of fantasy, it should stick around for the rousing closing-credits sequence.)
Another drawback in the film are the acting performances. Anil Kapoor as Prem Kumar is average at best. Irrfan Khan (the police inspector) and Dev Patel (Jamal) are slightly better but nothing earthshaking. Frieda Pinto as Latika was wonderful. She not only acts well, she looks right for the part, she has that thin undernourished look that is so necessary for her role. Madhur Mittal who plays Salim is excellent as well and looks the part perfectly. Again, kudos to Boyle for the casting. The kids in the first half of the movie do a good job too.
I do not think that this movie deserves the Best Film Oscar, but it deserves an Oscar for the music. The background score is awesome.
I hope the movie does well in India. I am sure our audiences will enjoy it as it’s got all the elements of a Bollywood drama, including a song tagged on at the end! The only drawback is its late release here. It’s been showing in film festivals abroad since August and was officially released in November in the USA and in early January in the UK. With the movie generating so much hype many people seem to have watched the pirated versions and I am not sure whether they will now want to see it in theatres.
The Amitabh Bachchan controversy: I am not a fan of Amitabh Bachchan’s and frankly have always disliked him (as an actor) but I think we need to be fair about his comments on Slumdog. It does appear that he did not really slam Slumdog Millionaire as was claimed.
Lets see what he actually said:
On blog, comments for the film ‘SlumDog Millionaire’ and the anger by some on its contents, prompt me to say…If SM projects India as Third World dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky under belly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations. Its just that the SM idea authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a Westerner, gets creative Globe recognition. The other would perhaps not.
That is the statement that generated huge controversy. He begins by stating that he was reacting to comments and also clearly uses the word “IF.” Nowhere has be said that he himself was hurt by Slumdog’s depiction of India’s poverty. However, to look at the other side, some amount of bitterness is evident in the words that follow. For one thing he implies that it is “patriots” who would get offended by the film. I am not sure whether he meant people who think they are patriots, so lets give him the benefit of the doubt. AB also says that Indian films don’t get the recognition they deserve on the global stage. Sure, that’s true, but it would be indeed surprising if the best of Bollywood was recognized by say the Oscars. It’s natural that Americans would view films they themselves make as the best. Hollywood films are made for western audiences and it is western audiences who will on the juries of the film awards.
AB has realised that he had put his foot in his mouth and has tried to rectify matters. No, he hasn’t taken his words back, he has simply explained what he meant.
He has said:
Media, in India has taken the pros and cons of OTHERS, as MINE, built their headlines and put it safely out, thereby, causing the consternation. All the expressions that have been attributed to me are in fact the expressions of others…
I too was influenced by the media coverage of this issue in India and perhaps thought that AB was jealous, but I realise that it was a mistake on my part. What is regrettable is that some misinformed journalists raked up an international controversy about his remarks, and Amit has discussed their trashy journalism here.