WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!
There are movies about India and there are movies about India. Particularly when it comes to dealing with an iconic city like Bombay (yes, “Bombay”… most Indians refuse to use the politicized names such as Mumbai, Chennai, Bengaluru, etc.). Bombay has long been the city of dreams in India, what with it being India’s biggest city, its financial capital, one of the largest ports in the country, and of course the Hindi film industry is based there (“Bollywood” for the uninitiated).
From the time movies have been made in India there have been various attempts to showcase life in Bombay and even attempts at making the city a character in the movie. There have been movies about the rich, the poor, criminals and cops, politicians and prostitutes, businessmen and ordinary people — you name it, its been done in Bombay.
Enter Mr. Danny Boyle and company to make a movie in India. One guess where it's set — Bombay! Well, then he wants to make a movie about Indians and let’s have another guessing game what it's about — slums and poverty. And let’s not forget that ultimate cliché that is common to Grandma’s bedtime stories, folklore and bad B-movies — it is a “rags to riches” story with a girl thrown in as well.
Well, it seems like one western filmmaker after another is out to “showcase” India to the rest of the world. First there was John Jeffcoat with his pathetic attempt at showing the software outsourcing industry in India with Outsourced, which received “rave reviews” and and now Danny Boyle comes along with Slumdog Millionaire. Why is it that a movie about India is received in the west only if it is cliche-ridden and shows cows, slums, and general poverty (of late it is the outsourcing and tech support angles)? And even then, why must is be made by a non-Indian? Shekhar Kapur made a really good movie called Bandit Queen and the Oscar committee did not have the sense to add it to the Oscar candidates’ list, let along nominate it. Of course, at the time, they were worried someone was going to sue them for it.
Hard-hitting movies about India, also set in Bombay, have been made in the past. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! was a brilliant, gritty movie about a boy who lives in the streets of Bombay (sound familiar, Mr. Boyle?) and goes through more hell than what is shown in this romanticized movie. Manirathnam’s film Bombay was about the riots in the '90s and Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday was about the 1993 serial bomb blasts in the city and the aftermath. These movies about that city stand far above the lame attempts in Slumdog.
Let’s delve into the details to see why this movie doesn’t deserve all the credit that it is receiving. First off, let's consider Dev Patel as the protagonist, Jamal Malik. What can one say of a character raised in the slums of Bombay who can barely put together a few words of broken English, when those words happen to be in a British accent! He really tries to emulate an Indian accent, but it comes off as a parody of the Apu accent, and that’s giving him credit! He is far from believable in this role and doesn’t even seem comfortable doing it. Here’s what I got from Wikipedia:
To prepare for the role, he went along with Boyle while scouting for filming locations, where he was able to observe the Dharavi slums for himself. He also reported having had a brief internship at a call centre and working in a hotel, where he spent a day washing dishes and generally observing life in Mumbai.
Well, these are the problems with casting people in such roles. For a role such as this you either need someone who is a local and can understand the nuances of the country, the culture, everyday mannerisms, etc. or a phenomenal actor who can slip into a role with conviction and get under the skin of the character. Dev Patel falls flat on both counts and before you go off with, “Hey, he’s Indian” and what not, let me remind you that being of Indian origin doesn’t necessarily mean that you can understand the day-to-day issues of living in the country for a few years and not just a day washing dishes and working in a call center (that modern cliche for India).
Next, the script. Where does one start with a storyline that feels like it has been thrown together in fits of drunkenness? The main outline is that Jamal Malik, a boy who grew up in the slums of Bombay, needs to go on the television show Kaun Banega Crorepati? (the Indian equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?) to find the girl of his dreams. As improbable as that sounds, what’s worse is that he is actually able to answer all the questions that are thrown at him, no matter how arcane or ridiculous they are. For instance, for the question “Which American politician’s picture appears on the $100 bill?” he is able to obtain the correct answer (Ben Franklin) because of the following sequence of events: He tries to scam some tourists; the driver beats him up; the tourists feel bad for him; they decide to show him the “American way” (another cliche, this time on Americans) and give him a $100 bill; he meets a blind kid who is a beggar that he hasn’t met for many years and they recognize each other; the blind kid who has never seen a $100 bill himself is able to feel the note and tell him Ben Franklin's picture is on there! So every question that is thrown at him matches an event in his life and he is able to answer it correctly.
Of course, the plot would not be complete without… you got it, cliches! There are the usual corrupt and brutal cops, an egotistical game show host, the slums in the city, scenes with filth, people who maim kids to make them beggars, underworld dons, Hindu-Muslim riots and even a brother who only cares about number one. (How would Americans like it if every movie about the US that is made in another country showed cowboys and “injuns” shooting each other and showed the country as still being racially segregated?)
Adding to this whole mess, Danny Boyle tries to be “poetic”. There are no words to describe the lack of originality of the climax, where his brother fills a tub with money and decides to lie in wait for the don with a gun and then dies in a hail of gunfire (of course in slow motion and black and white) with the bills fluttering all around him. Well, except that a Tarantino he is not… not even a John Woo, who with two guns and some slow motion could actually create visual poetry. This was such a lame attempt on the part of the director to try and show off his “talent”. This from a guy who made the likes of Trainspotting!
This movie has just two savings graces and one of them is an acknowledged genius who probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. I’m speaking of A.R. Rehman, the brilliant composer. The music that he has crafted for this movie is phenomenal, like much of his work. It captures the feel of the city and the mood that the movie is supposed to set. He deserves all the awards that he gets for best score.
The second is Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, as young Jamal Malik. He is perfect as a child growing up in the slums of Bombay. He has the right sense of innocence, wonder (for instance, when he gets an autograph from a movie star), cheek, diction and acting abilities to make him look like a natural in the movie. He is probably the only person in the movie that looks and acts his part.
After the Golden Globe wins for this movie, I am really hoping that the Academy has enough sense to not prop this up any further at their awards. If that were to happen, one would hear no end of an “Indian” movie making it in the Oscars and would probably scar an entire industry brimming with immense talent as they has to put up with jibes based on a sub-standard movie.
All in all, definitely a forgettable venture. Hang on, not just forgettable, but a "lock it up, throw it away, and have your memory wiped" (a la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) forgettable type of movie. In fact, thinking about it, go watch City of God instead; it's a far better movie that seems eerily familiar (hmmm!) and was made by someone who knows what making such a movie is all about.Powered by Sidelines