Thursday, January 29, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Are You Sure This Is it?

Update: Kartik is currently swirling in pools of impotent rage at the EIGHT Academy Awards - the grand finale of this whole catastrophe.

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.

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 indeed 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. But Slumdog Millionaire is not depressing, it is not uplifting; it ranges around on an anaesthetic flatline. Why? I don’t know for sure yet. Consider, however, 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 can't 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.)

The movie is very good with garbage, I'll give you that. 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. Poverty porn? Absolutely, and some of the very best I’ve seen.

Festering in my head though 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, and Fox Searchlight should sponsor it: it obscures the much simpler, and infinitely more frightening prospect, that Slumdog Millionaire isn’t a good movie at all.


bink said...

I've still not seen this man. So i shouldn't even be commenting. But i guess just as big as this movie is all the hype/discourse surrounding it. And I've heard the 'poverty porn' tag more times than Ron Jeremy did actual porn. Explain it to me because no one else who says it will. They all mumble 'poor people... sad something feel... bad... croissante'. I don't know- i notice you mention City of God, which i've seen. Sure they exploit the favella lifestyle- but( and pardon my informality) they also give it a badass dignity. Ah, but maybe thats it. This badass dignity is itself an invention, an element of the exploitation? But is literally all cinema not that, in some way? J'ai confondu.

razzmatazzz said...

I personally have no interest in meeting this person. But from what i have read and understood, it is evident that the film in question"Slumdog Millionaire" has not even scraped the upper section of his intellect which i am sure does not exist. In my opinion instead of ripping a movie apart try reading the book that has given birth to this movie called "q&a" by Vikas Swarup. You mention a hoard of movies such as city of god, amores perros, and black friday.. which are all great movies, however, there are undercurrent of Vidhu Vinod Chopra (Parinda), Ian Del Llana, Dan Gamazon (Cavite), Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay), Raj Kapoor (Boot Polish) and Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) in Slumdog Millionaire. I am sure you have either heard of these movies or glanced at them and found them too incomprehesible for your taste. Danny Boyle as a film maker might not be a Clint Eastwood, David Fincher, Tarantino. His last movie before slumdog was Sunshine a unsuccessful science fiction film. It may be the case that he does have vivid imagination, but he has to have one in order to be a director. A film such as this which is fiction cannot be made without imagination of how one needs to tell the story. The music of this movie is obviously a fragment of the director's taste and the way the story unfolds. It is edgy, unique and a fusion of differnt genres of music, i am sure you were expecting a regular Rahman hindi film music which it is, with a twist because the characters don't sing song in their designer outfits. I am sure you went to watch this movie with because of the hype and decided to get your own 5 minutes of fame and numerous hits on your blog. My only recommendation is stop riding your high horse and put your feet on the ground, analyze something for what it is rather than what you want it to be.

cat in the hat said...

I can't help but first commenting on the comment by razzmatazzz. First, I am confused, are you saying that because Boyle is inspired by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and the host of others you mentioned, his film becomes something to appreciate? I think in fact, that resemblance to some trademark films of this kind (Salaam Bombay is indeed one such) is one of the shortcomings of this film, because it is a hint of the safety blanket around Boyle - something that suggests his allegiance to a coterie of films, that is almost compulsory to appreciate. I can't understand why you feel the need to compare him the directors you do (though that is an incomplete sentence in your comment so I'm again not a hundred percent sure about what you're saying)...this only tells me that the film or the director has nothing new to contribute, which is not your view, nor mine. Also, I strongly disagree with your advice to the reviewer about reading the book first and then commenting, because we are responding to a film, not a book, and a person has the full right to appreciate a film exclusive of its 'inspiration' or source of origin. Even though I don't share the reviewer's distaste for the film, I enjoyed reading his description of the aesthetic of the film, which I thought was phenomenal.

bink said...

and my brother razzmatazzz, ' i personally have no interest in meeting this person'. hahah too much time on all them shady chat rooms, because hey, guess what? you don't have to meet everyone you interact with on the internets. And regarding that comment about the intellect- read through your post- you do yourself no favors either.
And finally 'Analyze something for what it is, rather than what you want it to be'. But the 'is' in question is totally different for different people. Cinema, like most art, is a collaboration between the audience and the creator, not just a singular complete product all on its own. Man, you've had time to watch Tsotsi and Cavite, but you haven't managed to figure that out? Oh right, it must be something to do with the 'upper section of your intellect'. For once, why don't you let it get sc,raped?

Uday said...

I have been desperately trying over the last few days to give words to the feelings I had towards Slumdog after watching it. Unfortunately everytime I have tried, I have been identified with other critics who have taken offense to the romanticization of poverty. That is not my problem with the movie.
This particular review makes a point that is unfortunately not being made enough- Slumdog Millionare is a badly made movie.
Sloppy directing and scripting are evident almost unabashedly throughout the movie. And this is most apparent in the use and delivery of English. For instance, how the Slumdog speaks an English which is infinitely crisper and more polished than that of the host (Anil Kapoor). This mind you is not hard to do, what with no effort being made to get him to pronounce key words like 'millionaire' and 'question' correctly.
Meanwhile, the middle Jamaal (played by the friend from Taare Zameen Par)is speaking in a crisp English cracking very urban jokes in a very urban idiom as he dupes the foreign tourists at the Taj Mahal. Mind you, there is no similarity between the idioms or accents of the three Jamaal's.

The middle Salim on the other hand, with hideous make-up which I can only imagine is boot-polish on his face says things like 'I am the elder, what I say will go', sentence constructions that noone except the characters in Malgudi days come up with anymore.

Overall costume design of the film too is excessively sloppy. Where Freida Pinto's character acquires the Delhi University uniform ( jeans, short-kurti and dupatta wrapped around her head the way only a DU girl can do) at the end of the movie is anybody's guess.

Why AR Rehman felt the need to pepper Jai Ho with spanish sounds and phrases is a mystery which is overshadowed by the more pressing question-what was up with the choreography of that song?

Suryanshu said...

... and yet it swept 8 Oscars, with Rehman's pointless "Jai Ho" hogging the limelight!

I would have been happier if the musician behind the zombie noises of 28 Days Later had been given an Oscar.

Ruchira Sen said...

I like this and I know it!

I differ with you about the English. After all, it was a British film. True, the script could have been like the dialogues of the French people in Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities in which all the French characters spoke English but an English directly translated from French and thereby, far from perfect. However, it's too much to expect that every piece of literature or every work of cinema should do this.

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You know who loved this movie? White people. And that's about the whole of it. A white movie for white audiences made by a white man. Okay, fine, let them have their white circlejerk over it, but don't look at me like I hate puppies and fun when I say as a POC that I hate this film. You know?

And about Boyle, it's like how David Fincher can't successfully direct a story if it isn't filled with angry misanthropes.

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