Saturday, April 18, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2009)

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 entertainment 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)

Despise the picture.

Let me put it this way--there isn't a single authentic moment here. The storyline (rags to riches, boy meets girl) isn't just a staple of Hollywood movies, but 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, is the house style of modern-day Indian musicals only tarted up with a little Hollywood production value. Danny Boyle borrows from the 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 ultrapopular 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)).

One gets the sense of a British tourist, a dilettante if you will, visiting the land of moviemaking--which happens to be doing perfectly fine on its own thank you very much (Indian film production 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


Sachin said...

Hey Noel,

great take on the film. I don't disagree with anything you say. Interestingly you mention Amar Akbar Anthony because in the book, the character's name is Ram Mohammed Thomas, a clear reference to Amar Akbar Anthony. And in the book, the character was an orphan left at a church. Hmmm..

I had tried to read the book Q&A last summer before the film made its premier at TIFF and I couldn't get through it. It is unreadable for me. The most annoying thing about Slumdog.. for me is the script which goes through a checklist of things to show in a movie about India --
Amitabh, check
Taj Majal, check
Slums, check
Hindu-muslim violence, check
call centres, check

If the film had to be written this year, I am willing to bet terrorism in Mumbai would have bene included. Although, the past and present structure shown in the film regarding the game show is watchable while in the book it is painful as we have to get through an entire chapter to see how his life is related to the question. The end result is a contrived story.

It is also a film with no standout performance and even Anil Kapoor is reduced to a few minutes of invisibility. I guess Hollywood needed to cheer for something because when The Dark Knight was not choosen, they needed a Hollywood like blockbuster even if it shot in India.

When I first saw the film, I enjoyed it as entertainment but despised the screenplay. I liked the vibrant colors used as most Mumbai gangster films of Ram Gopal Varma and his proteges end up using darker frames thereby reducing the vibrancy of Mumbai. Plus I liked the music. Always been a big of A.R Rahman and liked M.I.A's joint efforts. But I have a longer list of complaints about the film since when I first saw it.

What also bothers me is that Indian films such as Black Friday are far superior to Slumdog.. in showing the mumbai crime world yet they pass by un-noticed. The fact that films such as Black Friday don't screen at international film festivals is probably a big reason for that neglect.

Noel Vera said...

Thanks! That Black Friday sounds interesting--I'll try look it up.

Adrian Mendizabal said...

Boyle's Stylistics - disappointing...

Great Great critique!!!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for seeing the light through the trees in regards to this're one of the few.

dayuhangkayumanggi said...

Ah, ever the contrarian...

Yeah, you can say that it is well safe to bash the film now that it is headed for video our way (caught it on the big screen, though). Just imagine if you decided to run it when our movie-going public was still narcotized over the "Jai Ho" dance sequence at the end.

Yes, I read the book (Q & A) was definitely a way grimier affair than this film (I have a strong beef, though, as to why they had to change Ram's name to Jamal as well as Salim's characterisation in said film).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for review. I have to admit that I have not seen this film, but my reasons for this are confirmed by your review.

Noel Vera said...

Pfft--I don't care if I have to say it to their faces. Disagreed with more rabid audiences. Remember Passion of the Christ? Now those morons, they were fanatical about their movie.

Unknown said...

I have to say you are all terribly wrong! People can't handle a happy ending or intense story because you are all just too sad with your own stupid pathetic boring lives. This movie is flat out amazing, and whats wrong if it's a fairtale or if it's different? There are Numerous movies out there that are worse and have terrible acting, writing, music, crappy storyline and just are flat out awful. This movie has every single one of these things nailed perfectly! I am so sick of people attacking the different movies that have heart and real emotion, not sex, drugs, and language. This movie is meaningful and inspirational, and if you can't see that, that's your problem. Don't drag other people away from an incredible movie that they will most likely love! Go SLUMDOG!!!!

Noel Vera said...

Jeez, hostile much?

All I can say is--go see the real thing. I posted a link to my own list of favorites above; check em out if you like. Don't settle for secondhand soap; see the real thing.