Does it embrace the stereotypical lens of poverty, filth, injustice, and misery that Westerners like to see India through?
Is it a typical crowd-pleaser Masala Hindi movie, with ubiquitous song and dance sequences, car chases, bad and corrupt police, parents killed when children were small, boys become gangsters, girl ends up in prostitution, good winning over evil in the end formula guaranteed to make zillions at the box office?
Or is it a serious attempt to shock people to the truth that these poverty, filth, injustice, and misery are not going away even as India grows to take its rightful place among the nations of the world?
Are the makers of this film doing India a service by showing something Indian filmmakers could never show?
Background of Slumdog Millionaire
Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 British drama film directed by Danny Boyle has won lots of prestigious awards like the Critics’ Choice Awards, four Golden Globe and seven Bafta Awards as well as being nominated for ten Oscars. But, the film has had a very poor reception in India.
Many Indian critics have not been enthusiastic about the film and it’s portrayal of poverty and life in Mumbai. The film is based on Q and A (2005) written by Vikas Swarup, who is currently India’s Deputy High Commissioner to South Africa. The director is Danny Boyle, of Trainspotting fame and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy are British. The co-director Loveleen Tandon is an Indian from Delhi. The superb actors are also from a mixed background.
British Gujarati Dev Patel, who played Muslim Anwar Kharral in the Teen soap Skins, shines again as Muslim Jamal Malik. Irrfan Khan from a Nawab family in Jaipur is the police officer interrogating Jamal Malik. The beautiful Freida Pinto, a Mangalorean Catholic plays Latika. Anil Kapoor from Mumbai plays Prem Kumar, the host of the Indian version of the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The music of Allah Rakkha Rahman, the Hindu born Sufi from Chennai does justice to his fame (100 million records sold) and to the film.
The Plot of Slumdog Millionaire
A police inspector (Irrfan Khan) interrogates Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a former street child from the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, India by using clumsy third-degree methods. Jamal is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire hosted by Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor). Jamal has made it to the final question, scheduled for the next day, but the show master bribes the police into accusing Jamal of cheating. He is a lowly chaiwallah or tea-boy, without any education, and cannot know all the answers.
They also think that he could not have gone up to the last question out of sheer luck. Jamal’s tempestuous life unfolds, and these events give him clues to the questions. In the end, the main baddies get killed, Jamal wins 20 million Rupees (a humungous sum of money anywhere), Jamal finds his childhood lover Latika and they are reunited.
Significance of Slumdog Millionaire
- Slumdog Millionaire is not a pleasant feelgood orgy of visual delights.
- Neither is it an epic like Devdas (any version).
- There is no subtle poetry of underlying emotions as in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955).
- It also doesn’t look like becoming a Sholay (1975) in India.
The director Boyle says that the 1975 blockbuster Deewar starring India’s iconic filmstar Amitabh Bachan was an inspiration for this film. Slumdog Millionaire is a very different and disturbing film, especially for Indians. Slumdog Millionaire is targeted at the channelchanger loving MTV generation. The overuse of incessant flashbacks is annoying and confuses. The portrayal of evil, misery, squalor and poverty is more gruesome than in contemporary or old Indian films like Deewar (1975). The rot in society is exposed in all ugliness. The India police are shown as inefficient and corrupt, but the local thana or police station is no Guantanamo either.
Like many movies, the screen version changes everything from character relationships to many of the major dramatic incidents.
But, what it succeeds brilliantly is in archetypal representation.
- The lovers Jamal and Latika believe in kismat or destiny, and they are eventually reunited.
- The elder brother Salim chooses the dark side like Darth Vader and achieves worldly success. He eventually recognizes his mistakes and atones by eliminating the major obstacle from the path of the lovers and sacrifices his own life in the process.
- Jamal (a Muslim boy) is portrayed as the virtuous Rama from Hindu mythology. Jamal is not the goody goody simpleton Chance the Gardener (Being There 1979). He practises the ways of the world and takes unwitting people for a ride to make a living, but he is naturally yet effortlessly ethical and embodies some higher ideal, dharma.
Indian Reactions to Slumdog Millionaire
“If SM projects India as Third World dirty under belly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky under belly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations. It’s just that the SM idea authored by an Indian and conceived and cinematically put together by a Westerner, gets creative Globe recognition. The other would perhaps not.” Says Amitabh Bachan on his blog.
The Hindustan Times in India dished out five stars out of five, eulogising it as a "masterwork of technical bravura, adorned with inspired ensemble performances and directed with astonishing empathy."
The Times of India also gave 4.5 stars, brushing aside questions about whether it was a realistic portrayal of slum life. It calls SM, "just a piece of riveting cinema." "Forget the Us versus Them debate. Just go for the pure cinema experience," the newspaper writes.An outsider view often gives new insights. The secret of India’s astonishing diversity is that in its long history India has always assimilated outsider views. OutDia becomes India. Ironically, the very language many Indians use to lambast Slumdog Millionaire is English, originally an outsider language.
"'Slumdog' is big but it is essentially a Hollywood film," the general manager for marketing and sales, PVR Cinemas, in Mumbai's Juhu district, Joydeep Ghoshroy, was quoted as saying in the Hindustan Times.
“Had this film been made by an Indian director, it would’ve been trashed as a rotting old hat, which literally stands out only because of its stench, but since the man making it happens to be from the West, we’re all left celebrating the emperor’s new clothes.” Says Arindam Chaudhuri, Editor-in-chief, The Sunday Indian.