Somehow, I expected a more sophisticated film from the maker of Trainspotting. Granted, Slumdog conveys the vivacity and teeming life of Mumbai as appropriately or inappropriately as Trainspotting did the gritty Brit drug scene. And it surprisingly manages to cut to the heart of what makes the city and its people tick in a way that foreigners are rarely able to do without being trite.
But something, for me, was missing. Maybe the film tries to emcompass too much in too little time. From the Mumbai riots to the Taj Mahal to police brutality to underworld dons to call centres – it’s a lot of leaps in very little time. Maybe I’m left a little cold by Indian actors speaking highly enunciated English, even when they’re supposed to be a tapori. That’s why I think the slum kids in the first bit were awesome, they were so realistic because they were essentially playing themselves (especially the older brother and the little girl who becomes Latika).
But this film was made for a foreign audience and so that audience will probably not have the same concerns. They will not see a contradiction in upper middle class accents on street kids. They will not think the music is less than AR Rahman’s best.
Much has been made in the press abroad about how the film didn’t do well in India. This is pretty facetious, sort of like that Time magazine cover which pronounced Aishwarya Rai the top Bollywood actress when she wasn’t (though which subsequently, in something of a self fulfilling prophecy, she ended up becoming).
The majority of the audience for Indian films is spread out across villages and small towns and the urban sprawl. They want love stories with happy ending and adversity overcome. The film actually does offer this, and in this sense, is true to the Bollywood spirit. But it would not suit the vast Indian palate because it’s too real. I’d imagine that poor people, who go to watch movies to be bedazzled, would like to have a hero they can identify with but not have the daily despair of their lives broadcast to them in all its muck and grime and literally, shit. I’d like to watch films about upper middle class India that I can identify with but if you overdo the plastic doilys etc I might start feeling uncomfortable.
And then, the film doesn’t have any song-and-dance numbers and the music isn’t exactly satisfying for a Bollywood lover. More to the point, the film is largely in English and even if they had Hindi subtitles, it wouldn’t matter because so much of the audience in India cannot read. So the Indian audience as a whole could never be won, and I expect the filmmakers knew that.
But I’d expect the film to do better among the yuppie urban cinema goers. Someone like me. But as I said, it didn’t completely work for me either. Apart from the factors I mentioned earlier, the biggest problem for me was that I wasn’t convinced by some of the primary motivations in the film. I didn’t really feel the chemistry between Jamal and Latika growing up, I didn’t see the moment when friendship turned to love. Even the moment when the friendship really took hold, apart from him calling her in out of the rain, was unclear. I have known people who have fallen in love with someone when they were six and continued to love that person, but they’ve been around that person the whole time. They did not go off at the age of six or eight or whatever, and continue to hold a torch because at six you don’t really know what holding a torch is.
And I didn’t understand why the older brother would decide to rape/have sex with Latika, which is I assume what the closed door is supposed to indicate. It’s not like he didn’t have any money or wasn’t street smart enough to know where to get a woman, had he wanted one. Or maybe, he was in love with Latika from the beginning too. But if that’s so, it really didn’t come across till that point.
Despite all this, it’s an above average film. The quiz show format keeps you gripped and somehow by the end of it, you can’t help being touched by the star-crossed lovers. There are some beautiful shots, such as the opening one with the aircraft, and some moments that just make you smile at the irrepressible character of Mumbai that we know so well. Dev Patel was really really good – especially while being tortured and as the bewildered yet composed guy in the hotseat.
And as for the “poverty porn” allegations. Admittedly, the opening of the film does play to eulogizing the grimy slum life. But hello, this is the way it is. In fact, there’s something awe-inspiring about the way the film captures it. The only people who would be offended are the kind of Indians who fell for the India Shining thing and having had their eyes fixed on their own Gucci handbags for so long, they are hassled that people abroad will again start asking them “is it really like that” as if they were personally responsible (which they partly are… am, I mean). Or maybe the kind of people who go “Bombay is so dirty, it’s full of slums” as if the real-life poverty of that many people is akin to crumbs we should just sweep under the carpet and put our feet on.
I have always refused to avert my eyes from garbage heaps and degraded life that Bombay offers as its own version of picturesque. I also refuse to view it with pity or condescension. Yes, it’s terrible that people have to live this way and yes, we should be trying to find a solution (while recognising that there is no simple solution, especially solutions like demolishing the slums) but I refuse to believe that everyone there is living every single day in gloom and doom because I know they aren’t. This is their life, and it has both sadness and hardship (more than normal) and yes, also joy. And the film shows that – especially in the scene with the toilet and the autograph.
And if the film revolted people abroad and made them shudder, then hurrah! Maybe they will stop whining about the commute every day in AC buses and do something, even if it’s just sending a little money in the way of those people. Maybe the West gets off a little bit watching the suffering of poor, but if “getting off” here involves feeling “pity”, then let’s take it. Feeling anything – disgust, pity, rage – is better than ignorance. At least, now they know and they can choose, or at least, live with the reality of other people’s lives crowding into there own.
Besides, innumerable films have been made showing footage of the degradation of the Jews in Nazi Germany and nobody called that Holocaust-porn. Because the importance of those films is about remembering. And that’s what this one is about too – except in the present tense.
And finally, if nothing else comes out of it, I’m glad those kids got to dress up and go to Hollywood and live the dream for at least a few days. And get a trust fund and whatever else out of it, though I wish they could have got more. Even if it’s only two kids, it’s something.