Millionaire” has won 8 Oscars, Best Cinematography (Anthony Dod Mantle), Best Directing (Danny Boyle), Best Editing (Chris Dickens), Best Music (A.R. Rahman), Best Sound Editing (Glenn Freemantle and Tom Sayers), Best Sound Mixing (Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty), Best adapted Screenplay (Simon Beaufoy) and the Best Motion Picture.
It was earlier this year when we had the opportunity to watch Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, and it impressed to the core. This has got to be one of the best films we’ve seen in the last couple of years or so that takes Indian themes and styles and takes them to a new height.
In India, the movie was released in theatres on the 23rd of January 2009, and it brought along a whole lot of controversy, with statement popping up from even the Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan. On his blog, Amitabh Bachchan went on to criticize Slumdog Millionaire saying it was wrong to depict and bank profits on the slums of Mumbai, the plight of the nation, poverty, and the slum dwellers. And he isn’t the only one. A whole lot of Indians who’ve seen this movie think it was very wrong of Danny Boyle and his crew to exploit what’s wrong with this nation. Danny Boyle has been headlined as someone with the stereotypical viewpoint of the West, adding the description of the fact that everyone in the Western world thinks India is a third world country with many poor people and the lifestyle that has been depicted in the movie very precisely. The so called ‘social workers’ and NGOs at many towns and cities have filed Public Interest Litigations (which, in India, are hardly ever in any interest of the public) in various courts citing various reasons why this movie offends them and the sentiments of many others.
What a steaming pile of bullshit?! Period. Truth is, reality happens to be a bitch, and if it bites, it hurts. Of all, such narrow-mindedness was never expected out of someone of Amitabh Bachchan’s stature, who happens to have a global access to the rest of the world when it comes to promoting Indian cinema on a massive platform. And in a book release function at the Indian city of Jaipur, he went on to say that it wasn’t his statements where he criticized Slumdog Millionaire, but those of the people who blog for him. He also said that Indian Cinema isn’t needy of international recognition and can do without the Oscars. Any one in their right mind can point out the clear stink of jealousy in the tone of Amitabh Bachchan who hasn’t had a nomination in the Academy Awards yet.
So, in spite of all the recognition and the respect this man has got from the International Cinema, he just disregarded the Oscars and said they were irrelevant. The point to note here is, this is the man who runs around Europe and Asia trying to promote Indian Cinema through IIFA Awards (which happens to be a mock of the Academy Awards themselves). How does he think that is possible if he is just going to shut out the Academy Awards, which happen to be the industry’s most prestigious recognition.
In my opinion, it’s the old age taking toll on the man, and he obviously isn’t to blame for his degrading capacity to think, use his mind, and say stuff like that. I’m no fan of his, and I keep at bay from all the tasteless and unoriginal movies that Indian Cinema produces (obviously, there are rare exceptions) and has been producing for an awful long time now. But I had great respect for Amitabh Bachchan always, and now, it has just all fallen apart.
As for the rest of the countrymen who think Slumdog Millionaire is a mistake and the so called ‘wrongful depiction’ of India’s plight is hardly anything but exploitation, well, we can’t really comment on the stubborn celebrity-kiss-ass attitude that exists here. The mob mentality is something you cannot argue against and reason out. The truth is, there’s a lot wrong with India, and the rest of the world, and there is just no reason to not publically shed light on it. As far as the slums in Mumbai are considered, all the political parties, whether the ruling ones, the opposition, or the neutral ones see the slums and the slum-dwellers, and even the rest of the financially unstable population as vote bank for elections, and they never do anything about it, and they never will. Majority of Indian cinema-going crowd is naive, and feeds on a whole lot of mindless unoriginal bullshit with a lot of senseless dancing around trees. And it’s not that hard to be completely ignorant when it’s about something serious.
Slumdog Millionaire was released in India, and a dozen controversies have been created out of lack of information, lack of presence of mind, jealousy and ego. And that’s just about it. Expecting people to change and think broadly here is not justified, since that isn’t going to happen any time soon. Bottom-line is, Slumdog Millionaire is a great movie, despite of all the negative stance that a few folks have taken up. If you haven’t seen it yet, you just have to check it out.
The film shuttles and functions between three clearly defined planes of story-telling – the police station, the TV Studio, and the experiences in Jamal’s life. The three are also a deft representation of the three Indian classes – the middle class, the upper class, and the lower class respectively.
The police station – The cynical, skeptical, questioning middle class. They cannot fathom the exorbitant success of the chaiwallah(tea-seller). They cannot believe he has done so well, and most importantly, they cannot believe that he has done so much better than they have. The proverbial qualities of people like the reader, and the author. We are either jealous, or we are cynical, but we are never really appreciative, unless ofcourse, the icon is so large so as to remain safely at a distance from our personal feelings. Then we jump onto the bandwagon. Yes.
The TV Studio – The studio audience. The upper class. The hypocritical upper class. The levels at which Jamal reaches are representations of the levels of appreciation they have for him. In the first half, they laugh at every snide remark, or offhand joke that the anchor supplies them with. They mock Jamal, ridicule him, and detest him for having occupied a hotseat they presume is solely meant for them. Then he begins winning. And they start cheering for him. They prepare acceptance of Jamal as being one of their own.
The Experiences – Mostly featured in as a series of flashbacks, they are summaries of what Jamal has been through, and how those experiences help him in reaching the level he is at. Throughout this plane, Jamal becomes a symbol of the Indian lower class, forever, trying to attain a higher goal – whether monetarily or spiritually. He is desperate, often helpless, yet hopeful.
It is also interesting to note the transformations in the second and the third group. The second is moving, emotionally. They are always in a state of emotional transition, and are mere spectators, but their habits are not passive. The third group, the experience, is also moving, both literally and figuratively. It is only the first plane, the police station, which remains consistent in its cynicism, even while releasing the prisoner they arrested in Jamal.
At the center of the conjunction of these three is the show host, gleefully played by Anil Kapoor, who as I can imagine, might have wholeheartedly occupied the position occupied formerly occupied by two of the most powerful actors in the country, a position he hoped for in real but attained only on the reel. He is a man who has been through all the three planes – the lower, the middle and the upper. At various points during the story, he represents both, condescension, cynicism and glee, at Jamal’s exploits in the game show, thus becoming, at various points, a part of each group. His is the toughest role of course, and while Kapoor’s clearly not an English actor, he does well.
Boyle’s camera is observant. But it is clearly not a tourist. It is a generally keen observant. It is a robust, moving, curious, curious observer. It does not want to settle down. The trip is short and there is so much to discover. So his camera never really stops. It moves at a vulgar, often indecent speed, and then suddenly, it screeches to a stop- at the most critical of moments- when the hero and the heroine hug. Or when he just looks at her through the large gate, or when he sees her left behind on the non-descript railway station. The observer stops at an emotionality alien to him. It is a kind of sentimentality he does not see back home. It is a sentimentality that he does not have an idea about, but is fascinated by. It is sentimentality so typical of Bollywood, and so when the camera stops, not only is he respecting the most repeated clichés, he is celebrating them.
By placing them carefully and cautiously to convey the same drama that the Hindi industry uses them for. The crucial difference here is, that in his post-modernistic homage, he does not mock them, or satirize them, or makes fun of those clichés. He actually uses them.
The camera thus, observes. And it remains assured of what and when it needs to observe, often through unnatural cants and tilts, a dynamic he captures the so-called grit of Mumbai, and of Agra, and of the police station, and carefully uses mostly the conventional angles of the TV show, and thus opts, reconstruction over original construction, which would in any case, have defeated the purpose of using such a popular quiz show.
It is amazing how Boyle’s filming, and Beaufoy’s script (based on diplomat Swaroop’s novel), evokes the most evident Indian icons – the Taj Mahal, the red-light districts, Amitabh Bachchan, the Bombay slums, Kaun Banega Crorepati, and brilliantly, never lets them function in their own isolation or function in their personal context. They exist because they have some relation to our protagonist, and otherwise, they do not exist. When in Delhi, shoot the Qutub, when in Kolkata, shoot the Victoria, and when in Hyderabad, shoot the Char Minar, irrespective of whether a character has anything to do with them.
He shoots in a style I personally can trace back to Jeunet and Caro’s 1991 film ‘Delicatessen’, which though, did not epitomize the style, but did initiate a few of its origins – bright, vibrant, radiant colors, color contrasts increased to abnormal levels, and a fast, dynamic camera. Lately, City of God employed it masterfully.
The film does not dumb down. It does not feed. Why does the brother die at the end? How does Jamal achieve what he does? Why does the host write an answer on the bathroom mirror? It also is ‘different’, and it also recycles the same old clichés and uses them in a new template and thus achieves a result which our filmmakers are not attempting, and more importantly, are proud of not attempting.