Okay, credit where credit is due. Slumdog Millionaire had a brilliant premise that was also a wonderful plot device to showcase numerous aspects of Indian life. The production values were top-notch, some of the casting was excellent and given the relatively paltry sum Danny Boyle had to work with, he did some absolutely fantastic work. The shot locations were evocative of India; the venues chosen captured the soul of the land in as much as it is possible to compress a country to a few hours of celluloid. The music was in a class of its own and well-deserving of the Oscars it clinched. The entire package was a solid likeable crowd-pleaser with a simple uplifting theme and a Bombay filmed with so much love that it’s obvious the filmmakers fell for the city --- hard.
But the script,(a script which Danny Boyle said inspired ‘mad love’), oh the script was bollocks. Granted, the whole film had a fairytale feel to it, so a certain suspension of disbelief was required to enjoy it. But when two slum dwelling itinerants from Mumbai wind up in Delhi speaking the Queen’s English like the Queen herself, then the gap between disbelief and the suspension of it is an yawning chasm; a canyon that cannae be bridged. When Salim starts disbursing Benjamins to old pals, when he’s gotta know the dough will just end up back with his old masters, its more than odd. When a little child,very accurately done up like Lord Ram, materializes in the middle of a riot, it has a surreal Daliesque quality, like that pig-mask scene from The Shining. The dialogue lacked authenticity, coming as it did from Indian tongues unaccustomed to speaking in that manner. It feels like Danny told all his actors,” Speak clearly and slowly, pronounce every word correctly.” The result is that the lines lack the practiced nonchalance of true Bombayspeak, that wonderful synthesis of English and Hindi with effortlessly cool expletives as its cornerstone. The only actors who delivered their lines with a modicum of realism were veterans Anil Kapoor(quiz host) and Saurabh Shukla(Inspector Srinivas). In his defense, it must be said that Danny was attempting to create an essentially English movie, so the jarring incongruity of the dialog must be excused. But this is the Oscars; give the statuette to cinema that does not need apologists. The lines and delivery of, hell, even the casting, of the older avatars of Salim were plain horrid. When Salim justifies his rape of the teenage Latika with lines like ‘I am the elder. I am the boss. I am number one now.’, I had acid reflux. And it had nothing to do with the impending rape. Characters were badly sketched out, their motivations poorly delineated, their feelings and actions barely explained. Worse was the fact that the rags-to-riches story with a quick-fix solution was the same old-hackneyed fare that Bollywood has been churning out year after year. Danny’s inability to deviate from the trodden path of Hollywood sappiness, predictability and fairytale endings is his greatest failure as a visionary. Slumdog Millionaire has been done before, in various guises; we in India call it the last 30 years of Indian cinema.
SM has become the Indian media’s darling for the past three months. A cause celebre that polarized the country, provoked indignation in many quarters, spawned a lawsuit against the makers but also inspired and made many proud. Now that it’s raining Oscars, everybody’s quick to pounce on the SM bandwagon. This irksome tendency to claim the film as India’s own is a miserable attempt to share in international film excellence recognition that has eluded us thus far. And with good reason, for Bollywood makes crap films. It also takes great films in other languages and turns them into execrable oeuvres of such mindblowing suckiness that it’s a miracle the whole world does not vanish into the blackhole. Bollywood, Mumbai was right under your noses. The source material for SM was a novel written by an Indian - you could have optioned it. The money was there ( Slumdog cost a paltry $10 million bucks –Hrithik Roshan gets more for his Coke endorsement.) This could have been your movie. It still wouldn’t be a great movie, but with the right spin, you coulda won a Best Foreign Film Oscar. But now, you have to hold your tale between your legs and beg for kinship at the table of the Brits; request affiliate status from somebody who is now seen as more Indian than Bollywood itself. What’s worse, this film might shape foreigners opinions and ideas about India for years to come. More’s the pity.
Well, atleast SM is not as bad as that other Indian cultural ambassador of the year, Arvind Adiga’s bland, uninspired novel The White Tiger. How it won the Booker is beyond me. Whatever the judges were smoking, it’s powerful stuff.