Friday, March 20, 2009

The chai-wallah has done it again!

There's an absolutely exhilarating sequence towards the beginning of Slumdog Millionaire that finds Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail), two young brothers living in the slums of Mumbai, as they flee a police officer. Referencing his film Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle follows Salim and Jamal as they navigate the crowded, elaborate alleys of the slum - set to A.R. Rahman's propulsive score, each shot is packed with chaos, color and life before cutting to a series of wide shots that emphasizes the overwhelming poverty of the city. It's a scene that gives you a feel for the experience of living in Mumbai, but Slumdog Millionaire never recaptures that feeling. Mistaking contrivance for destiny, Slumdog Millionaire is technically impressive but gimmicky and devoid of real feeling and, at its worst, frighteningly disconnected from the reality of slum life.

"But it's a fantasy," one might reasonably argue, and Slumdog Millionaire does present itself as a story of a boy and a girl swept up by the winds of destiny. The film begins with 20-year-old Jamal (Dev Patel), whose hard-knock life has left him with only one facial expression, as he is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. As the show breaks for the night, Jamal is arrested on suspicion of cheating and interrogated by a police inspector (Irfan Khan) determined to know how Jamal could succeed where doctors and lawyers have failed; "it is written," as the film informs us, and as Jamal explains how he knew the answers to each question, we see how each one is tied to an important moment to his life. This results in an episodic structure that Paul Clark aptly compared to the Cheers episode where Cliff is a contestant on Jeopardy! - I must admit that I had to hold back unintentional laughter when, after we see a tragic memory linked with one of the answers, Jamal solemly says "Not a day goes by when I wish I didn't know the answer to that question." The whole "hand of fate" theme can be a very effective one, but there are probably hundreds of more interesting devices to illustrate this than a game show. And when fate is being used to pander to an audience's anti-intellectualism and desire for instant material rewards, the whole thing just feels shallow and patronizing. The film's outcome, which is never in question, would feel much more triumphant if Jamal exhibited some kind of intellectual curiosity - underdog stories are pointless if the underdog hasn't earned it in some way (without the training montage, who cares if Rocky Balboa beats Apollo Creed).

It's clear that Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (adapting the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup) are reaching for comparison to Charles Dickens, and Jamal's childhood even features an interlude where he, Salim and Jamal's lifelong love Latika (Frieda Pinto at 20, Rubiana Ali and Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar as a kid) must escape a Faginesque criminal. And though Slumdog Millionaire shares with Dickens an essentially passive protagonist whose life is driven by forces beyond his control, it lacks the passionate criticism of social injustice that gave Dickens' larger-than-life tales dramatic weight. Worse, its shallowness exposes Boyle's paternalism - sitting in a mostly white audience chuckling at the sight of a plucky, shit-covered brown kid, I couldn't shake the feeling that something (forgive me) stinks. I don't mean to accuse Boyle of racism, because that implies more intentionality than I think he's capable of; with each subsequent film, it becomes clearer that he's a hell of a craftsman and an increasingly facile storyteller. This extends to his characters - the film hinges on the question of whether fate will reuinite Jamal and Latika (what do you think?), but they're barely sketches of an adolescent notion of soulmates, and I just didn't care.

There is one element of Slumdog Millionaire I completely loved, however - Anil Kapoor as the game show host. Throughout the first two-thirds of the film I was hanging on every one of Kapoor's smarmy, elusive line readings, trying to figure out what the host's deal was - is he an agent of fate, or is he trying to trip the kid up, or is he just playing to the audience? When we get hints about the host's background and motivations, my attention drifted from Jamal and Latika as I started to picture the host's story in my head. Now that's a movie that would earn an end-credits dance number.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know what you mean about the paternalism, Dickens at least tried to involve a backdrop into the story rather than use it as a simple springboard. This editorial has a similar outlook to yours: