How to be a millionaire
Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is that one-in-million movie, a slick, scrappy, rags-to-riches flick complete with love story, chase sequences, menacing gangs, a helpless young beauty, a pair of scrappy brothers, a slum the size and population of a small city.
It's thrilling, funny, tragic, sensuous, infuriating; it's bright-colored and deep-shadowed, crammed full of danceable music, its characters running the gamut from insatiably greedy to viciously hateful to selflessly heroic to endlessly loving. It's the type of movie no one wanted to touch before getting made, and everyone loves after breaking boxoffice records; a heartwarmer, a tearjerker, a golden doorstop winner (Best Picture, Best Director, best yadda yadda yadda)…
I despise the movie.
Let me put it this way--there isn't a single authentic moment in the picture. The storyline (rags to riches, boy meets girl) isn't just a staple of Hollywood movies, but a staple of pop Indian films for as long as there's been a cinema; the style, all deep colors and bright music and restless, hurtling motion, the house style of every modern-day Indian musical, only tarted up with a little Hollywood production value. Danny Boyle borrows from the variously dramatic and bombastic manner of Indian films like Ram Gopal Varma's Mumbai crime flick Satya (Truth, 1998), two-brother melodramas like Yash Chopra's Deewaar (The Wall, 1975), and Ramesh Sippy's superultrapopular Sholay (1975), the last two starring the legendary Amitabh Bachchan (who appears in Boyle's movie through archival footage and a carefully photographed stand-in). Beyond them, of course is the seminal influence of Indian cinema's true greats: Guru Dutt (Pyaasa, (Thirst, 1957)), Raj Kapoor (Awaara (The Tramp, 1951)), Satiyajit Ray (Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956)).
The sense one gets here is of a British tourist--a dilettante, if you will--coming to a land of movies and moviemaking that's doing perfectly fine on its own (Indian cinema is one of the few in the world where the film production rate easily outpaces the United States--about a thousand pictures every year, double that of Hollywood--and boasts of a viewing audience numbering in the billions (to be exact: 3.1 billion, give or take a few hundred million, compared to Hollywood's 2.9 billion, as of 2006)). Said British tourist looks around, is delighted by the colorful misery around him, the colorful melodramas made by Indians dealing with said misery. He borrows this fantastic, highly coincidental plot twist; lifts that intensely melodramatic crying scene; pinches this oddly tilted camera shot; pilfers that vividly lit color palette; ties all together with a string of popular songs, pours the mix into a Black & Decker blender, and hits "puree." The resulting masala (Indian term for "a mixed paste of various spices") may be hot enough for most audiences, but for those who have tasted the real thing, it's like sipping week-old engine grease--thick and noxious, with the unmistakable flavor of the secondhand.
Perhaps the plotline is forgivable--Indian musicals have come up with much more preposterous premises (I remember in Manmohan Desai's Amar Akbar Anthony (1977, also starring Bachchan)) where three brothers are separated and raised up Hindi, Muslim, and Christian respectively, and all three reunite to give their dying mother a triple blood transfusion). That said, even Salman Rushdie found the source material, a novel by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, to be "a corny potboiler…a patently ridiculous conceit, the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name." Call this a fairy-tale picture then, but please don't call it as famed film critic Roger Ebert did "The real India, supercharged with a plot as reliable and eternal as the hills" (the movie gets about as close to the real India as Mike Myers does in The Love Guru, and the story isn't so much "reliable and eternal" as it is hoary and tired).
What I do find unforgivable is Boyle's generically attention-deficit filmmaking style. I thought it fresh and funny when I encountered it in Shallow Grave (1994), saw it at its most fulfilling in Trainspotting (1996)--or was I responding more to Irvine Welsh's drug-drenched sensibilities? Boyle's trick editing and handheld camerabatics grew wearying about the time of 28 Days Later (2002), where Boyle stole his best ideas from George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985)--the military base, its paranoid soldiers and chained pet zombie in particular--but not Romero's idea of the zombies being actually dead; in Boyle's picture they acted more like spastic convulsives with a bad case of rabies, felt less supernatural, less disturbing, and hence considerably less interesting.
Back on the subject of Slumdog and its disco-Pollyanna view of urban poverty: the poor, to paraphrase a famous philosopher, are always with us, and so are and will be stories and films about the poor. Perhaps the sharpest opinion on the subject comes from the Philippines' most brilliant filmmaker (and to my book most underrated satirist), Mike de Leon: in his short Aliwan Paradise (Pleasure Paradise) from the omnibus film Southern Winds (1993), he proposed an alternate-reality Philippines saved from its chronic poverty by a TV reality-show exploiting said poverty for its entertainment value (this, mind you, suggested years before there ever were reality shows). De Leon's "by his bootstraps" solution sounds remarkably similar in spirit to the idealistic garbage Boyle has been putting out in recent interviews; one wonders if Boyle himself is a de Leon invention, an instance of life startlingly and grotesquely imitating art.
First published in Businessworld, 4.11.09