Monday, January 26, 2009

When the Slumdog had his day

It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter that Who Wants to be a Millionaire is apparently a live show. It doesn't matter that a slumdog speaks perfect English. It doesn't matter that the show's host tries to feed a contestant wrong answers, as if he had a stake in keeping the kid away from the big prize. The movie never asks you to believe it, just accept it. There is a reason why most people who have seen Slumdog Millionaire either love it or hate it. It's a movie that asks you to check your cynicism at the door. It's like magic. You know none of it is real, because how could it be. But believe for a moment that it IS, and you will be dazzled, intrigued and entertained.
Slumdog Millionaire has become an international sensation, another , possibly the brightest feather in the cap of Danny Boyle. It has a 95 percent rating on Rottentomatoes.com and an 8.7 user rating from IMDB after nearly forty thousand votes. And like all things that were never meant to be this big but did, it has attracted criticism from all quarters. Right now there seems to be three major gripes against the movie. Let's look at them one by one.

1) Slumdog Millionaire is not a 'believable' or 'real' movie. No it isn't. When did it claim to be ? It's a modern fairy tale (and if you think it's a little too brutal to be a fairy tale, read some of the stories before the Grimm Brothers degrimmed them for the kiddies.) set in the slums of Mumbai. It could be set in the slums of Mexico city, or Cape Town, or New York or any city where abject poverty lives side by side with BMW's and skyscraper's. It's not about reality. Jamal is not a real kid from the slums. Like I said, the fact that he can speak perfect English doesn't matter precisely because the movie doesn't even try to be real. The setting and the surroundings are rooted in realism, but the story of Jamal shines through as wildly implausible, improbable and heartwarming. It's not how things COULD be. It's how things SHOULD be.

2) Slumdog Millionaire does not paint a TRUE picture of India . This one actually makes me laugh. You don't say ??!!! Name me one movie, one single movie that captures India perfectly. Slumdog is not a movie about India, or even Mumbai. That's just where it's set. It's a movie about Jamal, a boy who was born in the slums but goes on to win a television quiz show and the heart of his childhood sweetheart through a series of extraordinary coincidences and sheer grit. Also, more than a little helping of brains. When the little Jamal, covered in shit, holds up a grubby hand defiantly clutching an autographed picture of Amitabh Bachhan, he does not represent all slum children. He is just the joy of achievement breaking through.

3)Slumdog Millionaire is a typical masala movie that Bollywood has done a million times before, and has been scoffed at for its trouble. I won't disagree with this statement entirely. Yes, it is a very masala movie. And Bollywood has tried to do it before. But never has it been this smart, this slick, and this beautiful. The child actors here look and act like little children. There is a hard edge to their innocence, as there should be. They are not obnoxious little angels, as bollywood has traditionally tried to represent children. They don't give sage advice to the elders about communal harmony and the goodness of man. Coupled with smart editing, a riotous use of colour, and the very effective-in-building-tension KBC music, Boyle may have made the perfect masala movie.

So does slumdog deserve the accolades it is getting? I vote a resounding yes. It will not be nominated for many awards in the acting category, although Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as the youngest Jamal gives a heartrending performance as brilliant as Darsheel Safary in TZP. Dev Patel has a limited range of expressions, most of them being some variation of bewildered, but his sullen anger in the opening scenes comes off well. Frieda Pinto is in there for too short a time (she comes in about 80 minutes into the movie) to judge, although she is competent in what she does. Anil Kapoor overacts as usual, but makes the character work as a slimeball . The problem with his Prem Kumar is that he is given no motivation to be this antogonistic towards Jamal. Is he jealous that a street kid could make it this far? Does he truly believe Jamal is cheating? There are no answers. Irrfan Khan does a bad guy/slightly less bad guy thing he is so adept at. But the stars of the movie are The child actors, the sights and sounds of Mumbai (and Agra), and a script that wraps you up if you let it, and gives you a thrill ride to remember.