Monday, December 29, 2008

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire

So I did not think this was a great super duper uber fantastic greatest movie of all time. It is a good movie. Very entertaining. But somehow the kind of buzz (some even mentioned "Oscar") this movie has been getting misled me to believe this is a movie phenomenon. Maybe it will get an Oscar. We had the "black" Oscar year, the "gay" Oscar year, so maybe its time for the sweetly timed "Mumbai" oscar year. I am bored of people in west developing this habit of telling Indians that the India of the slums is the real India. There was a time when I drunk the kool aid and all this was nice to talk about. Now when some Indians tell me that too.. I wonder about credibility. Apparently, these people are trying to tell me that have lived and experienced a nuance regarding India's poverty. Something that has escaped me and the zillions of other people where have grown up in that country. I strongly believe that there is no 'real' India or that there are so many 'real' Indias that it is not worth examining which is more real. If this movie is seen as a 2 hour stereotypical Bollywood fantasy - it is thoroughly entertaining. If people start reading athi-bhayankaramulu philosophical undertones into it - it is nonsense.
All the stereotypes that the west associates with 'poverty', 'street fighter kid', and 'India' etc are here in this movie. If an Indian had directed it - it would have not been this successful. The stereotypes are presented in a checklist fashion. 1. Show extreme and unbelievable poverty to shock the white man - check. 2. The cute (and he is super super cute and lovable - I have to give that) innocent kid who is wronged by destiny of life - check. 3. Indian teachers are dhoti wearing kid-beating people - check. 4. Hindus are bad (that is the only acceptable secular view nowadays) - check. 4. Muslims (replaceable with any minority) are oppressed - check. 5. Show extreme gore being committed to earn money - check. 6. A kid from slums has nothing to loose so will run with the vagaries of life - check. 7. Bollywood masala (nonsensical love and stereotypical gangsters) - check. 8. Overly optimistic and positive ending that shows that the wronged deserve their luck however far-fetched it might sound - check. 9. Show the cliched and boring Taj Mahal to the white man - check. 10. Show extreme poverty and exploitation juxtaposed with India's riches again and again - check. So this movie is not special. Pudhupettai did better in some aspects.
There are merits to the movie. As a fantasy fiction Vikas Swaroop's story and Danny Boyle's depiction is extremely fast paced. The fact that they used "Who wants to be Millionaire" as a narrative instrument is a very good idea. However, I did think that the background for a few answers were too contrived and in general made the movie a little bit over the top. The arrow of the story does pierce through a slice of Indian life and shows a particular possibility of exploitation. The actors playing slum kids but speaking English with a touch of Brit accent was slightly concerning. The success of the movie shows an old but reliable Max Mueller trend. That the western world will welcome, with open arms, any story about India, as long as it is colored by and told by one of their own. Oh! yeah -> it needs to show only negatives and stereotypes. I am glad they didn't show an elephant. Maybe, Anil Kapoor was compensating for that little oversight.

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a secondary reaction the first being the movie is Awesome!

It is fun, it is fiction and it has been told with a heart that a LOT of Indian directors don't have a clue about.

Puduppettai was nicer in some ways, I can agree but wasn't that Cliched/steretyped in a check listed fashion too?

Point 1 - Poverty - How and when have us Indian directors shown poverty you can believe? And why the poverty here cannot be believed?

Point 2 - This story is as old as life itself... Our directors do the same...

Point 3 - 4 (a and b)- Agree (You have two point 4s)

Point 5, 6, 8 - This is common too.. Not specific for a Western Audience

Point 7 - Which non-bollywood movie industry has had sensical love stories? :)

Point 9 - I believed that was the juxtaposition for beauty/riches Vs poverty/gore etc...

So, you are trying to tell that these check listed 'stereotypes' are a western outlook of India and the Indian directors do not have that outlook or do not present that?
Look at Vincent Boovaraghan for some stereotypes... :)

Tell me I am wrong in understanding your post as I have done sometimes before and I shall be much obliged.

But, a well written post as always... Liked it.

Belated Happy New Year! (Uttarayanam has started)

Sarang-

Anonymous said...

"If an Indian had directed it - it would have not been this successful" - Why? What would have been different?

And this I need to ask: Is the term 'Bollywood' used in your post to distinguish from the other 'woods' of India? :)
Sarang-

Arun Sundar said...

Some people try to be different in the crowd, just for the heck of it. Looks like you are falling in that category Hawkeye!

Rani said...

I agree with you that its not a super duper uber fantastic movie as the buzz let me believe. But, I disgree with the few points about stereotypes. The povery shown is not unbelievable to white men who have travelled to India. If you are not confined to expensive resorts during your visit to India, unbelievable poverty is hard to miss. Beggers, daily laborurs, ricksaw pullers, street vendors, garbage sorters ... children working evrywhere.. early moring people taking care of daily ablutions out in the open.. bare bone schools running under a tree.. these things are visible just looking outside the train.
Teachers beating kids,it does happen. Parents and teachers both beat kids in India and we all have childhood memories of getting beaten up or to see someone being beaten. I will be surprised to find that you never witnessed any beatings.
There are Hindus in India who have killed minorities (muslims/christians Godhra and Orissa are very current) and with tacit state approval (Gujarat and Orissa government) Even if you say its one side of the story and the other groups are equally voilent still it does not justify the doings of extremist hindus in Inidia. So what is wrong in showing it. It did happen and it will happen. Riots are common in India and people do kill each other in the name of religion. Its not a stereotype. Muslims are opressed group in certain places in India and they are harassed by police. Its reality. RSS, VHP, Shiv Sena etc are terrorist organisations and instead of calling them negative stereotypes, we should work as a society to get rid of them. I agree with points 6,7,8,9 and maybe these were the things which did not work for me in the movie, but gave the movie the drama it needed to succeed.

I liked the children cast chosen to perform, their naturalism and the locales and nuances of the first half of the movie. I think the director did his research and executed it beautifully and it shows. I do not feel he was milking on negative stereotypes about India. I do not think any sensible westerner believe India to be land of elephants, snake charmers, invisible rope climber, monkey brain eaters. (The first 2 still exist in India) Its a movie about a boy raised in slums of bombay with lots of dramatisation of course. May be the buzz its created is because none of the Indian movies directed by Indian directors depict poverty in India in fast paced masala movie with deceptive doses of realism.

Gradwolf said...

I am not going to be as direct as Arun^^ here.

For one thing, the points/cliches you listed are very subjective. Some of them work, some don't. For example, point 1 I agree with, like, Salaam Bombay was a movie that the Oscars noticed(to answer Sarang's Point 1).

I think everyone measures greatness in terms of how much you come out of your comfort zone and accomplish something. It is a yardstick all of us measure an effort against, don't we? Isn't that the reason we consider Bharathiraja to be great for capturing the sensibilities of a village story? Isn't that the reason we think Thevar Magan is a classic study of caste clashes etc? Isn't that the reason Kamal is respected the way he is?

I think for Hollywood, it is the opposite. Danny Boyle is probably challenged to his limits when he has to come down and make a film in the slums of Bombay. And not on a couple of junkies in U.K straying from their responsibilities. It is the often abused term in Tamil, "brahmandam". It may be shooting with tens of cameras in Amsterdam for Shankar/Rajini but for Hollywood, it probably is getting down and dirty in a different way(slums of India is probably the easiest example). Most of the points you mention follow from and are derived from your first. Like they cannot show those boys being taught by a teacher in Bombay Scottish, can they?

It is not one of the greatest films of all time but definitely an excellent one.

Anonymous said...

Gradwolf,
Thanks for the answer... You are correct. It just sent me thinking about other movies as well...

But, would that make it (depicting extreme poverty) a 'western' placating (Max Mueller trend) mindset? No. At least, I do not think so.

It definitely pleases those who 'want' to keep the above midset.

I dont think that this movie's representation is a stereotype to cater to such audiences.

Sarang-

Hawkeye said...

arun,

what you said - this is not the first time i am hearing it. Any two people who disagree with each other resort to such "persnaal" attack. i have said it to others, you have said it. Some day you'll open your comment section to find the exact same things. What you feel then will let you know what i feel now.

Hawkeye said...

/* Teachers beating kids,it does happen. Parents and teachers both beat kids in India and we all have childhood memories of getting beaten up or to see someone being beaten. I will be surprised to find that you never witnessed any beatings.
There are Hindus in India who have killed minorities (muslims/christians Godhra and Orissa are very current) and with tacit state approval (Gujarat and Orissa government) Even if you say its one side of the story and the other groups are equally voilent still it does not justify the doings of extremist hindus in Inidia. So what is wrong in showing it. It did happen and it will happen. Riots are common in India and people do kill each other in the name of religion. Its not a stereotype. Muslims are opressed group in certain places in India and they are harassed by police. Its reality. RSS, VHP, Shiv Sena etc are terrorist organisations and instead of calling them negative stereotypes, we should work as a society to get rid of them. */

Any sensible indian would know that there are *also* schools where tecahers don't beat students, where muslims kill hindus in name of religion, where muslims aren't opressed but are a big part of india's richest elite, have s/w companies, are bollywood actors, are behind the making of this movie etc etc. So a sensible indian would have a balanced view. Would know that mistake is on both sides. And so not present a one-sided story just that way you did now and the way boyle did in his movie.

anytime you choose to say only one side of the story (like not mention the training burning thing when you mention godhra) I will give you your own medicine and "stereotype" you as a psuedo-secularist and not attach a lot of credibility to anything you say.

The fundamental problem arises when boyle or you or anyone tries to carry coal to newcastle. In that tell me that they know the 'real' india better but end up providing the usual cliches to back it up.

Anonymous said...

hmm, haven't seen the movie but the director's interview here led me to believe that this movie will not be a typical white guy's POV, even though every trailer I've seen indicated otherwise -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6Jpuqz98wc

dinesh

Hawkeye said...

sarang/gradwolf,

i wasn't trying to say desi directors are far better than boyle types. My intention of quoting pudhupettai was not show that home-made stuff is *always* better. I just don't see why this is special or different. So dont go off on that tangent.

I don't see many hindi movies but frankly I am guessing the karan johar movies aren't very different from this. Both portray an India that is only "slighly" "true", both pander to what the audience wants to believe. Just that one shows a fashionable ultra modern India with fair skinned people dancing in pubs and driving ferraris. the other one shows children jumping into a toilet/shit just to get an autograph from amitabh.

White people want to believe that India is full of call centers, child prostitutes, ill-treated women, slums, casteist hindus and muslim gansters - boyle delivers that. Infact it is so hard to deliver a movie that contains all the cliches about India so effectively. This is a shankar movies with masala things in a carefully assorted order. Hats off to boyle. Snake charmers, elephants, gandhi, teresa and calcutta prostitutes were the only items he missed.

Brown people want a rosy picture of india full of pubs, BMWs, NASA scientists etc - everody from bollywood to kodambakkam delivers that.

like I said this is a very entertaining movie but not different from any other populist masala.


sarang,

happy new year to you too :-)

Archana said...

Looks like I am going to disagree with everyone who supports slumdog millionaire here...
Your views and mine match about what a white man *likes* to know or hate about India. This blog is in fact similar to my reaction on reading 'The White Tiger' (have you read it by the way?)

Balaji said...

"the background for a few answers were too contrived and in general made the movie a little bit over the top" - u should read the book then. the film actually took out the most contrived and over-the-top parts of the book :)

Anonymous said...

Read the book Q & A if you haven't yet. It's no literary masterpiece by any means or a potrayal of "the real India" but a very entertaining book of masala fiction. The movie isn't a faithful adaption of the book. It's a usual Bollywood fairytale, but I like it for the fact that it is well-made and entertaining. Happy new year to you and yours.

Mamatha

sundar said...

/* If people start reading athi-bhayankaramulu philosophical undertones into it - it is nonsense. */

:) second para of the post seems to go in the bhayankaramulu direction.

/*Any sensible indian would know that there are *also* schools where teachers don't beat students, where muslims kill hindus in name of religion, where muslims aren't opressed but are a big part of india's richest elite, have s/w companies, are bollywood actors, are behind the making of this movie etc etc. So a sensible indian would have a balanced view.*/

Shokka sonna machi! Completely agree.

Hawkeye said...

/* :) second para of the post seems to go in the bhayankaramulu direction. */

oru eduthukattu dhaan... as to why the athibhayakramulu is nonsense.

:-)

Hawkeye said...

balaji,

Was the book good? Didnt see your review of it.

archana,

haven't read the white tiger.

mamatha,

it is well made and entertaining. Happy new year to you and your family.

Anonymous said...

"like I said this is a very entertaining movie but not different from any other populist masala."

Agreed. But the point is the cliches/stereotypes have moved from simple snakes and elephants, kings and 'demon' worshippers to the stereotypes of today. The same stereotypes which are encouraged and supported by as many Indians as westerners. So, this is not a 'western' mindset. This is totally a (section of) desi mindset too. Who in turn want the following that you have said:

"rosy picture of india full of pubs, BMWs, NASA scientists etc"

So, I don't believe I was on a tangent. :)


Sarang-

Arun Sundar said...

Hawkeye,
I wasn't meaning a personal attack. I just couldn't accept somebody criticizing this movie so mercilessly! :(

And as you said, maybe I'll understand one day - but not yet!

Anonymous said...

Mate,

My first reaction was to write a realllly long counter-point to this entire post but then, I've hung around for 2 yrs by this blog and I've never seen you a) consider an alternate POV without prejudice (or) b) agree that you might be mistaken (or) c) concede that you might stand corrected. Obviously you always think through everything before you post so you can never be wrong... which is why, I decided not to waste my time. I just thought I'd bring to your notice 2 points

a) A lot of those stereotypes that you mentioned are not perceptions but reality...Hard core reality... I've personally seen a couple of Korean tourists being ripped of their cars' tyres in Agra in 2002.....anyone who's stayed in Mumbai (why it happens even in Chennai, Kolkatta also) will tell you about the organised begging gangs - hell, we even had a mess worker boy Salim in our college canteen in Mumbai who was once involved in something like that...

These might NOT reflect 'all of India' but surely this IS one part of India and I don't see why we should be defensive about it...Having said that, I'm quite intrigued as to what YOU think is the real India. Its clearly not about elephants, sadhus and snake charmers but it also does not seem to be about muslims oppressed by hindus, gangsters, slums and the Taj Mahal...

b) I personally take strong objection to your comment that the Western world welcomes any story told about India by one of their own....I just think there is a lot of curiousity about India and they are more than happy to lap up any half-decent fare...Aravind Adiga just won the Booker and honestly, I loathed his novel....For a foreigner, I really think Boyle has succeeded brilliantly in capturing the spirit of survival that so embodies the typical Indian have-not.

Btw, when you get the time do read Adiga's book and share your thoughts with us.

- Jupe

Extra-Ordinarily Ordinary said...

You forgot the BGM. Was it intended to leave it out? The movie has been primarily nominated in more places for its music/soundtrack.

Anu Russell said...

hey i agree with you and that is exactly what I felt about the movie too...for an Indian...it was no big deal, we have seen tonnes of movies with similar stories and the minute the movie started you knew exactly where each of the characters were going to land up at...only the usage of KBC was new.

I hated the gore and it reminded me of chandini bar and many other movies shot on similar lines...

anyways...I still think it is a good movie but certainly not great. I really hope that India is not known only for its poverty...but well, what can we do if we let both locals as well as foreigners paint such wonderful pictures about it!

aniramzee said...

haven't seen the movie, but I do agree with some of your views.
While all kinds of movies are made and books are written about India, only the ones which show it in the bad light win bookers, and may win Oscars such as this one. The west does indeed want to see that side of India.

And yes, it does seem so that the only way to be secular is to show Hindus as bad people. Parzania was made to show how muslims and a parsi family suffered in ahmedabad. how many movies were made to show the train burning in Godhra?
rang de basanti directly shows the saffron parties as murderers, and chetan bhagat,in his latest book, shows a muslim boy who says he wants to be an indian for his next hundred lives, and doesn't mind remaining in poverty cos of that.

it is such cliches that everyone wants to see and believe, and if you show the other side of the story, you're labeled "extremist" and "anti-minority". such has become the fate of secularism in our country

Varun said...

@ extra ordinaly-ordinary...

kudos... aFter reading all the comments i could finaly find one soul actually mentioning abt the BGM.... comon ppl... talk abt the better than the best aspects...
god has already won the GOLDEN GLOBE... for the original score... and SM gets 4/4 nominations.... hats off boyle....

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