Slumdog Millionaire: Are you sure this is it?
Slumdog Millionaire, darling of the international festival circuit and on Tuesday nominated for ten Academy Awards, hit Indian shores this weekend. I watched it on a sold-out Friday night; the movie is packing shows deep into the week. I see that over at The Times of India, Nikhat Kazmi has pronounced Slumdog Millionaire “a piece of riveting cinema, meant to be savoured as a Cinderella-like fairy tale, with the edge of a thriller and the vision of an artist.” And here is Shubhra Gupta, writing for the Indian Express: “One look at Slumdog Millionaire and you know that its spirit and soul is flagrantly, proudly India: the Empire has been finally, overwhelmingly trounced.” Film criticism in the Indian press has been gone to the dogs for a while; it is now en route to the slumdogs.
Poverty porn? Yes, and some of the very best I’ve seen. The movie is very good with garbage. If you’re going to exploit urban squalor, I suggest you learn from Danny Boyle, who seems to have been learning from this generation’s masters: Fernando Meirelles (City of God), Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Amores Perros), and without a doubt, Anurag Kahsyap (Black Friday). I pick out for notice an early chase (the first of many in Slumdog Millionaire) in which the density of Bombay’s slums is navigated with breathless speed. There is another particularly striking, inventive image of young Jamaal, lathered from head to toe in shit; yet another in which towering heaps of garbage edge out of the frame.
The fact is, for years now, Boyle has been pulling out shot after shot from his intimidating visual imagination. He then apparently spends weeks with them in post-production, where images are spliced and processed and spliced back together with relentless energy. The results are sometimes dazzling; sometimes, they’re plain awful. It depends on what movie Boyle is making. Where an intensified mood is to be summoned, Boyle’s MTV-on-steroids arsenal is a fit. He has given us remarkable films that are nothing more, or less, than a temperament: Trainspotting is a superior hallucination, and what would 28 Days Later be without its hysterical thudding? In such cases, Boyle’s talent seemed to rise above the occasion, compelling often-mediocre writing into something entirely new: pure mood.
When the material is more mainstream, however, Boyle’s deficits become discernible. There is a fabulous conceit in Swarup’s novel, this idea that from the residues—indeed, from the trash of our lives—we can all make our millions. It suggests depth and soar. Yet, Slumdog Millionaire is not depressing, it is not uplifting; it ranges around on an anaesthetic flatline. Why? I don’t know for sure yet, but consider Boyle’s repertoire. Here is a filmmaker with a demonstratedly sure sense of style, colour and space, but apparently none of people. Is it a surprise, then, that the romantic drama of Slumdog Millionaire has almost no punch, in a year in which the most convincing love story is a futuristic, animated, fable of a garbage-collecting machine overcoming evil intelligence to be reunited with his robot love.
Hence the conundrum: If the protagonists of a Boyle film are only vaguely human (zombies, drug addicts, zombies), the collateral is minimal. But it will take a while before he can direct a good, authentic human predicament: I’m afraid he hasn’t been prepared by experience for it. He cannot, for one, direct his actors. Anil Kapoor is a disaster from start to finish, and how he was cast remains a more perplexing question than anything computer-ji can throw at you. Irfan Khan has a thankless role, and he gives us nothing to be thankful about either. Freida Pinto is the biggest miscalculation of the lot; it doesn’t help an amateur (albeit an attractive one) when she has to speak such unspeakable dialogue as “I thought we would be one only in death…Kiss me”. The only exception is Dev Patel, who I’m guessing must have directed himself.
Patel tries his best to bury the British accent, but it peeps out every now and again. What irritated me no end was Jamal’s inexplicable, and very sudden, facility with English. And I mean English. Perfectly rounded, often accented, grammar-school-finished. We are never told how he learned the language. Curious, given the movie’s preoccupation is providing explanations for how Jamal knows the things he knows. (It must have been something in the air, I suppose, since by that point in the film even the local goons bark in English). This will be a minor problem, if at all, with Toronto or New York or London audiences (‘Ah! finally no more subtitles!’); for Indian audiences I suspect it shall be a major cognitive hurdle. It has the egregious effect of somehow making the writing (“My enemy’s enemy is a friend”) seem worse, stuff that wouldn’t even pass on daytime television.
I’m going to go ahead and call this movie a mess. Since Slumdog Millionaire cant decide what it wants to be, it ends up as little more than a savvy consolidation of the flashiest trends in global cinema. As such, Rahman’s score is an instructive calamity. Like Boyle, he energetically plunders a variety of sources—Bombay, the inner city, the ghetto. The final product is a jukebox that won’t sit still, and only occasionally makes sense. (Again, like Boyle, except that most of the work Rahman plunders is his own.)
Festering in my head is the notion that the over-heated debate on slums and dogs, and exploitation and third world woe and first world guilt, has been a kind of press miracle. It has materialized fortuitously for Fox Searchlight, obscuring the much simpler, and frightening prospect, that Slumdog Millionaire isn’t a good movie at all.