This has been said by someone else, but I will repeat it anyway: if the new ‘Indian’ craze in the West, Slumdog Millionaire, wins one (or possibly more) Oscars, it will be due, to a large extent, to one particular scene in the movie. After the protagonist plays foul with an American (actually the US, lest we forget altogether) tourist couple and is being beaten brutally by an Indian, the American couple rescues him, only to get the retort that ‘you wanted to see a bit of real India’. And the lady’s answer is to get a hundred dollar note (we don’t call it a ‘bill’, nor a ‘bank note’) from her husband and hand it to the offending boy with what we call a dialogue in Hindi, ‘well, here is a bit of real America, son’. As the person who mentioned this scene earlier (although I had thought of the scene in more or less the same way) also pointed out, this American lady (that’s what we now call a woman in Hindi) is shown to be the only really good person in the whole movie.
But the movie is supposed to be all about Indians, so there are no real people other than Indians except this lady. The only Western (White and presumably Christian) person in the whole movie can hardly not be a representative of the average Westerner (let alone the US Americans) as opposed to the wretched, written-to-be-wretched, Indians, especially when she makes such a grand gesture accompanied by a solid dialogue.
Since there still are people out there who are going to (or already have) criticize this movie for some crappy reason like selling India’s poverty to the West etc., one has to give out the mandatory disclaimer that one is most certainly not against this movie for any such reason. In fact, one is not really against this movie at all.
I most probably wouldn’t have commented on this movie had it not become such a sensation and also given that a lot of insightful commentators have already written about it. But now it looks very much likely that the movie is going to get that most-prestigious-in-the-globe-but-actually-the-US-American movie award named Oscar, and probably more than one. This means that the movie will be taken seriously by a lot of non-Indians and perhaps even by some Indians. And, as I indicated earlier, it is not really such a bad movie. The problem is that it is not a great movie at all, which is what it is being made out to be outside India.
And like one other commentator (pardon me for not giving references, but I am tired right now: though I can provide them on need), I find it hard to believe that it is directed by the same person who directed that movie which is in my list of Very Good Movies (in the company of movies by Bergman, Fellini, De Sica, Kubrick and the like), namely Trainspotting. Whereas that movie was exactly what it wanted to be, this movie almost fails completely, although it is still entertaining.
There are so many things which are fundamentally and very clearly wrong with this movie. Accent is, of course, one of them. I wonder whether Danny Boyle knows that the knowledge of English (and even more so its use with a particular accent) is the single most reliable indicator of one’s socio-economic status in the Indian subcontinent. And the movie shows the ‘slumdog’ using the highest caste accent whereas the elite TV show host using a pretty low caste accent (yes, Anil Kapur’s accent is not very ‘good’ and he would usually be looked down upon among a circle of people speaking in almost British accent, as does the protagonist).
I would urge Danny and his crew to go and see Tashan, which has some similarities with this movie and also stars Anil Kapur.
The movie could have been so much better if it was made in Hindi and had better casting and had hired some accent tutors like they do in Hollywood even for the all-(US)-American movies.
The second big problem is that the novel on which it is based doesn’t talk Karma-Varma at all. And the movie resolves everything at the end by saying ‘because it is written’. And Danny Boyle himself in an interview (roughly) said that you simply can’t resolve the complexities of India: they are just there. Then he said ‘they even have a philosophy for this’, which says to me that he seems to know very little about India. Yes, there is a philosophy of that kind, but there are innumerable other philosophies too.
Come on, Danny, no one in India actually says ‘I don’t know, I have got a sort of Karmic feeling about this’ or something like that (as the TV show host does). This Karmic terminology is more used in the West, than in the ‘real India’. No one really talks about ‘Karma’ here. (Even when they do, they don’t do it in this way). Though they do talk of Bhaagya and Taqdeer and Maathe Ki Lakeer etc. Which is not the same thing. And which is the reason this movie can be accused of being indulgent in post-modern Orientalism (someone else said that too).
In many parts of India, if you spoke out the word ‘Karma’ in the way Danny Boyle (or any Westerner talking about India) does, people would think you were talking about a patriotic movie starring an old Dilip Kumar pairing with one of my favorite (favourite for the less dominant party to which Danny belongs) female actors, Nutan. This ‘Karma’ is, of course, not the same word. In fact, it’s not a word at all: it’s a name.
It’s an ambiguous Named Entity that I would classify as either a Person or as an Object-Title, depending on the context.
In the same interview, Danny Boyle says about Mumbai (which we still quite often call Bambai – बंबई in Hindi and Bombay in English) that ‘they call it the Maximum City’. Well, it’s actually Suketu Mehta who calls Mumbai that. A lot can be said about that book too, but I won’t say it now.
Now the music. Well, the simple and solid fact is that A. R. Rehman has given much better music before, right from his very first hit, Roja. If some Indians start respecting him now because he wins an Oscar or two, I can only pity them. And I pity the non-Indians too: for being completely unaware of such great music even in this .mp3 era. Music which has been heard and liked by hundreds of millions of people for more than one and a half decade now.
But let me reiterate. This is not such a bad movie. Your money won’t be wasted if you go and see it. But it is definitely not ‘a gritty and realistic’ movie about India, except in some ways which are of no use to an Indian and could be misleading for a non-Indian.
Let me reiterate something else. The Indian ‘reality’ is much worse than what is depicted in the movie, which is basically a lived-happily-ever-after fantasy.
And featuring the US American lady in the movie with her fictitious hundred dollars is a cheap (pun intended) trick to win over the Western (especially American) audiences whose senses will be offended by what is shown in the movie (for the dummies: this is a deliberate but slight exaggeration). Because if the truth were told, a big share (not all, of course) of the responsibility of this worse reality of India (as of other colonized or near-colonized countries) rests with the West.
Overall, Slumdog Millionaire is in the same league as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Both movies are inspired by the ‘Bollywood’ style of film making and both have directors who seem to know precious little about India but who wanted to pay some tribute to the country and its films, just as the earlier Orientalist artists paid their own tributes to the seductive, exotic East as imagined by them with their artistic temperament. But as an Indian I feel that the latter movie has a definite edge. That could be partly because it doesn’t pretend to know (and, therefore, tell) much about India.
Slumdog Millionaire’s only connection to Trainspotting, ironically, happens to be a scene that was hard to watch even for the hardened Indians: the jump in and out of the shitpot. And even this scene was done much better in Trainspotting.
There is also a serious matter that is concerned with both the style as well as the content. It’s a very tricky matter to mix realism with fantasy, which is what Slumdog Millionaire tries to do. And it does quite a bad job of it.
As it happens, Danny Boyle came and lived in India for some time for making this movie. One gets the impression that he was overwhelmed by what he saw and didn’t quite know what to make of it. And in such cases the easiest resort is to the Karmic poppycock that the movie ends at. Small mercy that it is done with the tongue at least lightly in the cheek.
P.S.: Also for the dummies, the word ‘caste’ above has been used metaphorically, not literally. Knowledge of English and the accent is a big (perhaps the biggest) determinant of the metaphorical caste in India. Even in the India of Call Centres. Or should it be ‘especially in that India’?