First things first – To those decrying Slumdog Millionaire for showcasing Indian poverty to the West, sorry to say, but the film works pretty well and rather than complain about the portrayal of our underbelly, our filmmakers should learn to face their own inadequacies and realize that it has taken an outsider to come here and make a film that’s capturing the imagination of the entire world, not one of them. On one hand our ‘master storytellers’ happily applaud a City of God or Tsotsi but cry foul when our own murkier side is shown in a film. Not that this is entirely new. People had also whined about Satyajit Ray exploiting our poverty in the West when the great filmmaker had made his poetic masterpiece Pather Panchali in the 1950s. It’s time we opened our eyes to the reality around us and grow up.
Slumdog Millionaire is adapted from Vikas Swarup’s book, Q and A and is a lesson in the art of screenplay writing. Simon Beaufoy, the writer of The Full Monty, retains the essence of Swarup’s book but cinematically interprets it. While the novel looks at each story as to how Jamal coincidentally knew the answer to the questions, with each story being individualistic by itself, the film, while using elements of the same, seamlessly blends the various incidents in Jamal’s life to an extremely cohesive and engaging narrative as we see his story from a young child growing up in the slums to being on the hot seat of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?. It’s a difficult job as the novel itself is based on a series of huge unbelievable coincidences and convenient plotting throughout but the film still manages to use these elements, make them credible and come out with an extremely feel good product showing the triumph of the underdog. The screenplay successfully changes elements from the novel such as its structure to keep the classic 3-act structure. In the novel, Jamal has already won the show when he is investigated for cheating whereas here he is arrested before the final question in order to build up to the riveting climax with the all’s well that ends well bit.
Director Danny Boyle keeps a firm hand on the proceedings on-screen and one has to commend the film for its absolutely superb use of locations. The film has been shot in some of the most difficult locations of Mumbai’s underbelly. Our filmmakers here need a master class on how to shoot in real locations, something very few films here like Black Friday or Aamir have managed. Cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle needs to be applauded for his top notch energetic camerawork and dense frames that bring the multi-layers of Mumbai alive. You can feel and sense the essence of the real Mumbai as the film makes splendid use of the handheld camera and the tele-lens with telling close ups. At the same time, some brilliant recreation has also been done of the dhobi ghats and other set pieces by the production design team to blend the sets with the real locales. The film is brilliantly edited and the stage is set for the film’s energetic narrative flow right from the beginning as it deftly cuts between Jamal being interrogated and to him being in the hot seat of the game show before cutting to flashbacks of his story, maintaining its tempo throughout. The rousing climax is beautifully built up by cutting across the length and breath of the country and grips you totally as you, along with everyone, find yourself strongly rooting for the underdog Jamal. You cannot help smiling as the film plays out its happy ending. The evocative sound design by Glenn Freemantle and Tom Sayers and sound mixinng by Resul Pookutty, bringing alive the everyday din of Mumbai, only re-emphasizes the fact that our filmmakers should realize the importance of how much a truly great sound design can enhance a film rather than give audio post-production step motherly treatment in terms of time and money spent .
The performances, by and large, are spot on. Though Dev Patel is unconvincing as the adult Jamal with British accent all in place. The actors splaying the youngest Jamal, Salim and Latika are all remarkable. Anil Kapoor is more than adequate as the host of the popular programme Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? but is unable to avoid the influence of Amitabh Bachchan (who proved to be extremely popular hosting the show on Indian Television) in his performance. Freida Pinto as Latika looks lovely and has a strong screen presence but suffers from a largely one dimensional role as the love of Jamal’s life who keeps getting away from him. Irrfan Khan (sadly wasted), Madhur Mittal, Saurabh Shukla and Mahesh Manjrekar are so-so.
That said, the film does have its share of glitches. Slumdog Millionaire is unable to really avoid having a typical Westerner’s point of view of the white man doing his bit for the natives and even within all the grime and grunge on screen, the film is unable to escape a certain element of typical Indian exotica. But then let’s get this clear – Slumdog Millionaire is not an Indian film. It is a foreign film shot in India. But in making nods to Dickens and yes, certain elements of mainstream Hindi cinema, the film also gets stuck in some typical Bollywood situations that we have seen come right down from the 1970s – the separation with one of the characters unable to catch a train for one or the brother giving Latika the car keys at the end and asking her to run away from Javed. Another problem is the language of the film. The switch to English from Hindi takes some time to get used to and the dialogue in ‘Indian English’ does sound extremely stilted like the worst of school plays in a lot of places. The screenplay has certain holes in the story as the links made as to how Jamal got specific answers like Amitabh Bachchan being the star of Zanjeer or Soordas being the author of the bhajan are oblique so you do wonder how Jamal would know the answers. The film does enter mawkish territory at times with the love story and seems unnecessarily over-styled as well. The end titles are cheesy to say the least though you’re willing to grant Boyle his ‘Bollywood’ indulgence since he has built up the film beautifully to its satisfying end. Of course the Western world would go totally ga ga over it but honesty, Bollywood does this better. AR Rahman’s background score (OTT at times) or the songs Jai Ho (apparently rejected by Subhash Ghai for Yuvvraaj) and O Saya are not his best compositions. This is not to take away anything away from Rahman or his Oscar nominations. He is undoubtedly a phenomenal music director but we’ve heard better from him repeatedly down the years. Probably, his sound is being heard in a big way in the West for the first time (his work for Deepa Mehta notwithstanding) and is therefore refreshing and different from what Hollywood is normally used to.
By now, as this review comes out, the Oscar nominations are out and Slumdog Millionaire is well on its way towards Oscar glory with as many as ten nominations. What’s more, 3 Indians are in the running for the coveted Academy Award for their work in the film – AR Rahman with three nominations for Best Original Score, and two for Best Original Song, Gulzar saab as lyricist for Best Original Song and Resul Pookutty for Best Achievement in Sound. The film, which has been sweeping all the important Awards including the Golden Globes in the run up to the Oscars, has also been nominated in the key categories of Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Achievement in Sound Editing. And as the Oscars approach on 22nd February, 2009, we all wait to see if AR Rahman, Gulzar and Resul Pookutty join Bhanu Athaiya and Satyajit Ray as being Oscar winners from India!
English, Drama, Color