It’s done it. I did not expect it not to. A bunch of slum kids in tuxedos being made to play to the gallery of vogue.
As I have already stated before, the problem with and about Slumdog Millionaire was not its capitalising on Indian poverty. We are a poor nation and someone asked me whether the portrayal of beggars was sensationalised. It is not. This and even worse is done.
However, I did not like the film. Except for the weaving of the quiz contest format with real vignettes, which was clever, it was quite a tacky attempt. It lacked subtlety and the in-your-face aspect was much like the pile of shit young Jamal jumps into to meet his icon, Amitabh Bachchan. (An aside: Could it be that Mr. B was rattled by the film for this reason – that his hand happily takes a photograph from the slum kid’s excrement-covered fingers and signs on it?!)
What Danny Boyle has tried to do is pack in every little hope-rope trick – slums, communalism, the underworld, gang tussles, prostitution, child exploitation, call centres, the real estate boom, tour guides, touts, Bollywood, the local trains, sibling rivalry, rags-to-riches, love, with a slight nod at globalised India. The weird part about the last is that the characters speak in un-Indian accents, and we are not talking about those at the call centres.
Even stranger is the manner in which aspirational India is seen through purely a westernized prism, the motif being the dollar bill and the rather patronising view that a poor blind beggar would know the man on it to be Benjamin Franklin. This is all so pat.
There is no doubt that many slum kids are extremely savvy, but it is a street smartness that does not depend on general knowledge. A hawker or paanwallah will hold forth on politics quite easily because it affects his daily life. It is quite ridiculous to assume that they would know about The Three Musketeers.
“Kiss me,” says the so-called heroine. This is a girl who has been rendered homeless and orphaned, goes through the motions of being sold in the flesh trade and becomes the mistress cum sandwich maker of the local dada. It is a bit odd that she’d speak like this, something you do not even see lower middle-class girls do.
There has been a lot of talk about hope and struggle. No one seems to realise that Jemal hopes for little other than to save Latika; he goes zombie-like through every stage in life. It is his brother who is the go-getter who finally saves his ass and manages to get him together with his love. Even as a contestant on a winning streak, there is no spark; it is the determination of someone who has a memory.
The idea of portraying the anchor of the show as being envious of Jemal just does not manage to convey any psychological dimension. If he has a similar history of deprivation and rising from it, it would be plausible for him to resent his ‘position’ as the rare phoenix-from-the-ashes being toppled, but his motives remain hazy.
The Surdas blinding sequence was extremely stagey. A bhajan by the blind poet saint is used to dramatise how beggars are blinded. A man who runs such a racket is hardly going into the nuances of such things. Neither are those the beggar boy will try to get a few coins from.
This brings us to the bhajan. Pottering around a bit with the tune does not make the music composer a genius. I am afraid, A. R. Rahman’s score for this film is utterly lacking in soul. What the hell is that Jai Ho song all about? It appears at the end with the main characters doing an ensemble dance that lacks the chutzpah of what is so characteristically Mumbai with dhin-chaak-dhin joie de vivre. If this was supposed to be a ‘tribute’ to mainstream Hindi films, it falls flat. Farah Khan manages a better job of filming the credits with cast and crew.
At best Slumdog is a celluloid version of the kitschy Bombay Dreams. Only outsiders would get excited about the content, that too because they are at a safe distance. Some of us, even the elite, who have spent time working among these very people know the reality a bit more closely than what we see from our windows.
Do you recall all those beauty contest winners who would not stand a chance in hell (except the first two) and suddenly India was on the world map? It was to beguile the over 250 million middle class buyers of cosmetics.
Now we will be inundated with ‘images’ of our country by ‘objective’ eyes. Thanks, but no thanks. We have a billion pairs of eyes right here that can see darned well what is happening.
I did not watch the Oscars ceremony, but I read a bit about the speeches. Rahman harked back to the “Mere paas ma hai” line and Resul Pookutty brought in Om, the “universal sound” of our civilisation. Since when and how? And if he is so proud of our special sound why does getting the Academy award mean “history being handed over”? What is the history of the award? Okayyy. We have our contemporary maharajahs and snake charmers.
And Rahman is becoming just another marketing genius. The simple religious fellow who works at night with new voices and sounds. Bloody hell, you better do…but give us another background score like Bombay and the brilliant Dil Se.
Danny bhai can rest happy that he did a nice helicopter version of struggle and hope. Next time he might like to hang on to one aspect and embellish it with some detailing. This is merely a filmic tourist brochure of the other side of India.
Our poor film-makers won’t even be able to plagiarise the stuff. After all, it is a clear case of meri billi mujhse meow…