Slamdog Everywhere

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.

Spoiler follows…

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.

Spoiler ends…

“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.

Rahman Bashing

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.

Quick Facts
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.

Post Script
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

Your songs put me off

My friend Prakash asked me the following question, “Which film is better? Taare Zameen Par or Slumdog Millionaire?”

My answer was the same as his: Taare Zameen Par.

To that I got the retort, “Then what kind of hypocrisy is this? Slumdog gets an Oscar and TZP doesn’t even get a nomination!”

Well, I can answer that question in one word.


As long as Bollywood movies fit in half-a-dozen to a dozen inane songs, the majority of the West will not watch them. For us songs are a part and parcel of a movie. For the Westerner they aren’t. For a newcomer watching a good Bollywood movie, the moment a song comes, the flow is broken and he’ll walk out. (I used to do the same, much to the consternation of my wife) Even if he manages to sit through the first, he’ll walk out at the very next song. So how do you get the non-NRI audiences to even watch your films?

In the West, they make romances, musicals, thrillers, fantasies, comedies science fiction, horror, action, crime movies…

In India, we make musical romances, musical thrillers, musical fantasies, musical comedies, musical science fiction, musical horror, musical action, musical crime movies…

You can still argue that both Slumdog and TZP have songs. But Slumdog cleverly begins with one and ends with one, while the others play in the background subtly. In TZP , like every other Bollywood movie, things just seem to stop for the songs. If the movie is a musical in the first place, it’s fine, but if you try to pass off every movie as a musical with songs just for the heck of it, that doesn’t make sense.

Slumdog kept songs at the periphery and got Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Song. That’s the secret. Don’t stop the flow of the movie just for songs.

When Lagaan was nominated, a foreign critic said something to the effect of:  My personal favorite is Lagaan, but it has no chance of winning. An American jury will simply not sit through such a long movie with all its songs.

A possible solution

A few decades back the production standards of Bollywood movies weren’t that great and they relied on a lot of plagiarized plots. However off late a lot of slick movies have come out with slick plots. They could win international awards. What’s wrong with that?

So how do they go about doing it? One solution could be to release another version of the movie without songs for the international audience. If the songs took the movie forward, then it could be replaced by a voiceover, a montage of scenes or something like that. That’s the only way Bollywood can increase it’s audience and international awards kitty.

For years I’ve been told that Bollywood is unique with all its song and dance numbers. I for one think that’s absolute rubbish. Many a times songs spoil a perfectly good movie. The time has come for most of our film makers to do away with songs. Or in this era of choice, give a film to us in two flavours: With and without songs.

Quick Facts
Three Indians (AR Rahman, Resul Pookutty and Gulzar) won with Slumdog in a single night. Here’s India’s count before that:
Bhanu Uthaiya: Best Costume Design, Gandhi, 1982.
Satyajit Ray: Honorary Oscar, 1992.
Indian films nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category: Mother India (1958), Salaam Bombay (1989), Lagaan (2002)
Indian directors/producers who’s films have won Oscars: Ismail Merchant and Shekhar Kapoor.
Winners with an Indian connection: Ben Kingsley (PIO) and Ruth Praver Jhabwala (Lived in India, married to a Parsi)
Nominations all: Ravi Shankar for Best Music in Gandhi and Ashmin Kumar’s The Little Terrorist, for Best Documentary in 2004. Indian-American Manoj Night Shyamalan has also been nominated.

Post Script
Not many people realize that the Oscars are not for English movies alone. Any movie of any language released in Los Angeles is eligible. Examples of foreign movies with multiple nominations in the main categories are French films Cyrano de Bergerac and Amelie along with the Danish film Pelle the Conqueror. So if Amitabh gives a sterling performance or Mani Ratnam directs a stunner, why not release that movie in LA and try for the main categories?

It’s not that we should be crazy about Hollywood or Oscars, but it’s just an additional territory that India could get into

© Sunil Rajguru