Monday, January 12, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Why So Serious

Like The White Tiger is a great serious book, Slumdog Millionaire is a great serious film. By great, I mean raved about by just about every film critic in the West (see here). By serious, I mean you do not just go to this film hoping to be entertained for a couple of hours - go see "Harold and Kumar" or "Singh is King" for that. You go see this film so as to uplift yourself and be lost in a masterpiece that captures the real India in a Dickensian fairytale of life and love. Having seen this oh-so-awesome film I wanted, as the title suggests, to ask Danny Boyle, Vikas Swarup and Co. "Why so goddamned serious?".

The movie, we are told, takes a Dickensian approach to depicting the real India. What it does is present the West with every known stereotype of the Third World - swap India for Congo, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso or Papua New Guinea and the movie would be unchanged save for some Hindi at the beginning. The real [Insert country here] is found in slums, amidst filth unimaginable that the camera sort of luxuriates in. Slum children are shooed away by teachers, other parents, policemen (in the middle of a riot) and beaten mercilessly at every turn (Something else the camera will focus on). Any stranger who shows kindness inevitably turns out to be some sort of pervert. All policemen are corrupt props for the eevull rich. Placed in this hell, the hero fulfils the most pressing concern a struggling slumdweller can have - he tracks down his one true love, a girl he has met perhaps twice since he and she were pre-teens. Gangsters, cops, a condescending quiz show host and his own evil brother stand in the way, but true love must triumph in the end.

Well, films are supposed to be fantastic and heaven knows you can find plot holes in "The Dark Knight". The problem with this film is its tone. If this film were meant to be a masala romance in the vein of "Kuch Kuch Hota Hain", "Taal" or "Only You", not to be taken seriously, where was the need for throwing in the slums of Bombay as a backdrop? And if we are to take "Slumdog Millionaire" as great serious filmmaking, well, here are a few problems:

(1) The usage of English in the film is inexplicable, especially given that the protagonist and his brother did not go to school – something the movie repeatedly reminds them and the audience. Nevertheless, they speak fluent English with British accents. English in India is used amongst the educated, its usage often a class distinction. For an otherwise illiterate boy to speak English, confidently addressing Westerners when posing as tour guides and using phrases such as “don’t give a shit” and “plenty of pussy for XYZ” is absurd.

(2) The host of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” is repeatedly shown to mock the protagonist’s profession and background, calling him a chaiwalla (tea-bringer) and marveling at his luck. Mocking people for being poor on live television in India is as big a faux pas as using racial slurs on live television in the US, something no game show host wishing to keep his job would do. Equally unrealistic and distasteful are the repeated reminders by the news channels that the protagonist is illiterate. No mention is made of where he lives or works, simply that he is an illiterate slum-dweller.

(3) The police are shown to arrest the protagonist on the word of the game show host alone, who is never seen to so much as sign a First Information Report. They beat and electrocute him on the basis that an illiterate “slumdog” could not know what he did. Nevertheless, they suspect a smuggled microchip as a possible modus operandi. How could an illiterate slumdog use a microchip? The scenes serve no purpose than to show people how inhumane foreign police forces are.

(4) Whether it is in Bombay or Agra (location of the Taj Mahal), the protagonist remains surrounded by filth unimaginable. Especially cringe-worthy was the scene where the protagonist leaps into a pool of excreta to get to the movie star. Slum-dwellers are as concerned about hygiene and cleanliness as everyone else and for a person to do that is absurd. While much of India lacks development, it is offensive that a director repeatedly present such stereotypical images.

(5) Similarly cringe-worthy were the scenes where a passenger attempts to yank the two children off a moving train, and where a chauffeur mercilessly stomps the fallen child on the head. Again, the lot of street children in India is not a pleasant one. They are regarded with suspicion and hatred by a lot of people. It is absurd however that every member of the middle or servant class treat them with utter disregard for their lives.

We all have this yearning for India to be looked upon as great by the West, and SM has been

hailed as the best thing since bread came sliced by such greats as Shashi Tharoor, Chidanand

Rajghatta and Raja Sen. Like White Tiger, it is simply an attempt to pigeon hole us under

poverty, misery and call centers.


Akshay Rajagopalan said...

There's a fine line between portraying reality and stereotyping. The West is entranced by India's poverty and filth- that's the USP of India for them. I too find the funda of an English-speaking, microchippable slum-dweller incredulous. It's as if all the director cared about was showing Mumbai's slums- the rest of the film's just a gag.

Akasuna no Sasori said...

A Times reviewer, amongst the few who didn't love the film, called it "poverty-porn". I couldn't have put it better.

poetic soul said...

i dint like the movie and i agree when it was called "poverty - porn"....

also to quote one more instance in the movie, when jamal, was looking for his childhood sweetheart(if so u may call it), he meets one of his old friends at the orphanage who is blind then and gives him a Benjamin Franklin! i mean duh!!! how on earth was something like that to be explained??? it was completely ridiculous....disgusting act.... i completely agree to the akasuna....brilliant points put forth!