Slumdog Millionaire : Half-Boyled Cinema and Other Ruminations

February 8, 2009 at 6:04 am (Cinema, Kiran David)


Prologue for no particular reason:

Walking out of PVR Mulund down the stairway after watching Slumdog Millionaire I overheard a slob tell his family (who probably had their brains fried with watching too much television) that the film was great but would hurt Indian sentiments. If I had the balls I should have kicked him on his jelly bum and sent him flying down the stairs.

I do not remember the quote exactly, but Billy Wilder in an interview in his later years said he did not take shots that made middle class morons say wow. Unfortunately Mr. Danny Boyle has made a career doing exactly that.


While his first film Shallow Grave just about passes muster, thanks mostly to its cast, it was in no way unique. There are many better films dealing with similar themes, including A Simple Plan by Sam Raimi. By the time Boyle made the iconic hip Trainspotting he exposed his vacuity to any one with half a brain. This is not to say many did not consume it wholeheartedly and hail him as the MAN.


Like a handful of British filmmakers, particularly the ones who have come through advertising and TV, Boyle believes in glibness and over-producing a work which may seduce fools who consume but in truth do not experience cinema. Being glib works in the afore-mentioned idioms as they are communication tools which aim to deceive. However, in a more evocative medium like cinema, it just destroys. Unhappily, there is a vast audience who loves this kind of thing.


Coming to his latest mediocrity Slumdog Millionaire, a very tedious rags-to-riches tale of a slum kid who makes his millions on a TV Quiz show, the film is probably most closely related to Trainspotting replete with a shit-pot dive. The biggest problem is that it exists beneath any kind of debate. Audiences have been divided into people who think it’s a masterpiece and others who feel that Boyle exploits third world poverty. To be fair to the director, I do not think he is consciously exploiting poverty nor tarnishing India’s image despite Armond White (one of the few western critics who seem to have seen through the film) calling him a “poverty pimp with an avid”. But the sad truth is that despite its acclaim, popularity and awards it is plain ordinary. It lacks any quality and is just simply innocuous. It is neither good nor does it have the personality to be bad.


The rapid cutting does nothing but display the director’s banality and lack of imagination, and his inability to evoke anything. Despite being an old codger, I do not have anything against frenetic cutting like many others of my age, but it should work and there are directors doing it very effectively. Cyber punk films of Iishi Sogo, Shinya Tsukamoto’s early work, and sections of films by Takeshi Miike, particularly the prologue of the insane Dead Or Alive all use maddeningly wild cutting, but unlike Boyle’s mechanical representations, they rattle you and evoke something that truly enriches the work. Boyle lobotomizes his viewer with his technique and cloying sentimentality, and deceives both his audience and the art he claims to serve. A better filmmaker may use similar techniques but arrive at something unique separating the artist from the salesman or the pimp.


There is an idiotic belief among some audiences that rapid cutting and dazzling camera angles are modern and hip, but let us not forget that many silent film makers did it to fine effect over eighty years ago. A few months ago I saw Battleship Potemkin after almost thirty years, three times in a row and finally shut my system in a state of ecstasy hopping about the room like a rabbit. This despite the propagandist nature of the film. I mention this just to point out that Danny Boyle, despite his popularity and fake hipness, is far from being the Real Thing.


Shot in real Mumbai slums, the director’s aesthetic or lack of it manages to squeeze the life out of the images he uses. This harms Slumdog even to a greater extent than it does his other films. We are left with dead, almost graphic representations of images that could have breathed and pulsated.


The cast, with the exception of perhaps the slum kids and even they are filmed to be cute, are very ordinary, and the less said about Anil Kapoor and Frieda Pinto the better, let them bask in their delirious ignorance.


Even the sound, music and song are strictly functional but then again sound for ninety percent of films worldwide has a dubious function. Pookutty is, I think, a bit more subtle in Slumdog than in the local films, at least the ones I have seen…but….? And if Celine Dion could win an Oscar for that Titanic thing why not Rahman, who among the Indians associated with this film, at least behaves with dignity and decorum.


I am not surprised that the West has lapped up this drivel with glee; every now and then they need a fix of the Cinema of the Deprived to warm the cockles of the heart and make them experience generosity in all its melodrama. While there are many great films dealing with poverty, they lack the kind of audience support that something mediocre like Slumdog gets, thanks largely to the high level of illiteracy and posturing of the media. Also ignorant audiences who gain knowledge wolfing down substandard supplements on DVDs and hack internet sites which have created an odd culture that gains faulty knowledge without experiencing cinema the way it is meant to be.


What is shocking, however, is India’s reception of the film. Our media seems to have gone gaga over it. We seem to have adopted Boyle and naively believe that it is an Indian film winning the Oscars, which itself is quite often a dubious award. The perennially hilarious Barkha Dutt and her NDTV circus put on the most unintentionally comic show with the cast and crew of Slumdog. For a moment, I thought that poor Anil Kapoor, now on cloud 9, and who mistakenly thinks he has contributed to the glories of cinema, was going to sing the classic film song from the 1958 film Phagun – ‘Ek pardesi mera dil le gaya’ (‘A foreigner has stolen my heart’) to his dear Danny Saab, while the channel blokes wag their behinds to the tune of Prince’s ‘Sexy motherfucker shaking his ass, shaking his ass, shaking his ass’ playing in their minds.


With this newfound Indian adoration, Danny Boyle himself seems to be all over the place with a lost expression that reminds me of Captain Willard’s [Martin Sheen] description of Mr Clean [Laurence Fishburn] in Apocalypse Now – “The light and space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head. ”


It’s time we in India realize there is something called ‘Cinema’ even if they do not win Oscars, Golden Globes, and other trashy honors, or are  not showcased on tacky TV shows with their ridiculous hosts. We have had greater filmmakers some no longer alive like Ray, Ghatak Aravindan, we have Mani Kaul who did some very interesting work in the first part of his career, before his narrative phase. There are also a couple of younger film makers who, though still finding their feet, need to be considered. All of them are worthy of far greater respect than the said Danny Boyle.  


In case, like the boy in Trivandrum who was disappointed to know I was an Indian, you prefer to see films made by foreigners on India, then Louis Malle’s Phantom India series, Rossellini’s Mathrubhumi India 1955 and Renoir’s River (despite the casting flaw of Radha) are great and superior works.


Rumour has it that Danny Saab and Anil Kapoor are planning another film in Mumbai, and why not. Even if he wins all the Oscars, he will never get the treatment in his country that he gets here. He may even win Padma Vibhushan and why not, perhaps even an impromptu Bharat Ratna before the Oscars, something even Ray got in hindsight after his lifetime achievement award from the Academy


My only wish before he starts his next film is that someone gets Boyle to dive into a paan-stained unwashed shit-pot before he makes another film, maybe then he could find the truth…but would he dare to?


– Kiran David


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