So Slumdog Millionaire finally won 8 Oscars. It’s funny how it’s so panned inside India and so critically acclaimed outside it (100 plus international awards in 4 months). While it’s OK to criticize a movie if you don’t like it, I’m really surprised at the kind of slamming that Slumdog is getting.
First things first. Is there any rule on where a film story can be based? I guess not. Your film can have a setting in India, America, Antarctica, the moon, a galaxy that doesn’t exist, a few thousand years in the past, a few hundred years into the future and even an alleged parallel dimension. That’s what cinema is all about and variety keeps the box office ticking.
So why can’t a foreign director base a film in the slums of Mumbai? Fair enough? Secondly, what will any director try to do when making a film? He’ll try to make it as realistic as possible. Whether it’s Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey: 2001 or Troy or City of God or our very own Lagaan, directors try to make their movies as believable as they can. If you’ve seen the movie, please tell me what part is false or incorrect. Events like the ones depicted have taken place and continue to do so. Nothing wrong with that too.
Then they say that this is exploitation of slums and poverty is being exported. But if you’ve seen the film then you’ll also agree that more than the depiction of the slums, it is a celebration of life itself. The two brothers are shown playing cricket, enjoying being chased by the police and generally having a good time.
It’s a movie about the triumph of human spirit. While our protagonists keep getting into scrapes, they keep getting out of them. Despite the loss of their mother, they move on. Despite being captured by a gang who wants to make one of them blind, they escape. Despite being absolute newcomers in Agra, they manage to make a living there. Despite carving out a cushy life in a new city, they come back to rescue the girl in Mumbai. Our hero gets third degree all night in a police cell and yet sits it his chair and stares angrily at the sub-inspector with his pride intact. In the end he becomes a millionaire, gets the girl and gets rid of the bad boys. That’s a feel-good film with a happy ending. Not an “arty” film which exports India’s poverty.
“Triumph of the Underdog” and “Destiny”
One reason why Hollywood has loved the movie so much is because it shows the triumph of the underdog. (Slumdog = Slum + Underdog) I had read an article many years back on the American film industry which claimed that when the Jews took over Hollywood, they transferred their “outsider” status into the movie stories. Their heroes were rarely part of the mainstream society. The trend continues till this day. Look at some of the top grossers of all time.
What chance does Frodo Baggins have in a world full of powerful sorcerers? What chance does an ogre called Shrek have of winning the princess’ heart? What chance does computer programmer Thomas A. Anderson have of becoming Neo and saving the world? What chance does a Mumbai slum kid have of becoming a millionaire?
More than slums, it is the very Indian concept of karma that is sold to western audiences. Destiny. It is written. It is only by luck by chance that Jamal wins. While the first half is a grim reality, the second half is the great escape. My guess is that most Indians stopped watching after the interval and that is exactly the image of Slumdog they have in their minds.
Summing up, I’d say the reason why Slumdog won big time is:
1. It’s a perfect fusion of “arty” slums and Bollywood escapism along with British and Indian talent. Fresh for the West.
2. It’s actually a Hollywood film masquerading as a Bollywood one.
3. Since there were no nominations for best acting, it wasn’t in direct competition with Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Kate Winslet etc.
Another criticism is AR Rahman’s music. Most people (me included) agree that this is not his best piece of work. And yet he has got an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA. That’s a big irritant for distracters. To answer that question, the way we regard music in films and the West does is totally different.
In Bollywood, they make good songs with good music and good lyrics. The idea is that the album should sell as a standalone product. That is more important than blending with the movie. That is why most of Bollywood albums can be enjoyed without knowing anything about the film whatsoever.
In the West they do it a little differently. The music has to be part of the plot and in the very fabric of the movie. That is why sometimes you may not enjoy the music album that much if you don’t see the movie. If you buy the music of Slumdog, you may or may not enjoy it. That’s irrelevant. What is relevant is how much you enjoy the music when you actually watch the movie. Does it blend with the movie? I think it does. Secondly, remember, Rahman was composing for an international audience and not a national one.
This is the best East-West fusion I’ve seen in a long time. Let’s hope this is the beginning of a new trend.
1. The very first winner of UK’s Who wants to be a Millionaire was arrested on charges of cheating and later convicted.
2. A contestant of the Australian version of the game was also arrested but later cleared of wrongdoing.
3. The first winner of Kaun Banega Crorepati, Harshvardhan Navathe, was from Mumbai.
4. Vikas Swarup’s Q&A, on which the movie is based, does not focus on any particular game show in particular.
Aren’t we all hypocrites to some extent? We don’t go near slums and we don’t talk to people from slums. And yet when a Britisher makes a film on slums, we all cry foul.
© Sunil Rajguru