Sunday, 18 January 2009

Slumdog phillums

An unhealthy fascination with the poor?

The recent film by Danny Boyle (of 28 Days Later) has lifted the lid on slums, particularly for Western viewers not used to hearing about such things. Some might even say it’s a slight glamorisation – but will the poor always be with us? The movie itself was excellent, but not, in my view, something that shakes the Earth. Perhaps this is because I have lived in places with such poverty, and it really does not strike in me the wonder that perhaps audiences in Europe and the US feel. The acting ranged from spectacular (the children) to the insipid (the older characters). But it highlighted an indomitable spirit of fight within those regularly downtrodden by society. It also showed most of the older characters to be cynical and corrupt (right down to good ol’ Anil Kapoor).

Most older Indians found it to be needlessly sensationalist, while Western audiences in particular have marvelled in its Rushdie-esque brio, metaphorical allegory and pulchritude of Bombay, the city very much in the news today and always in fashion. This pseudo-glamorisation of slums is not new, as Jug Suraiya tells us (see his excellent article here), because of Salaam Bombay (Mira Nair) & the superb Dominic LaPierre’s ‘City of Joy’ (that’s Calcutta, by the way). I thought it was an excellent picture, but most of the euphoria has passed me by. Its four Golden Globes say otherwise, but when Big B is trashing it (see here), who am I to disagree?

So, should we all yearn to be slumdogs, so we can rise above it all? Being middle-class is quite unheroic, isn’t it? There has been condemnation from various sources in the media, but I reject it all; this is a story of hope. On another note, foreign audiences have more respect for this kind of film than, say, Heroes (cynically weepy) or Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (lots of fun, actually), because of its greater plausibility. The phillum shows India as it often can be – there is no hiding from it. There are contract killings in India, but there will be investigations. There will be fraud, but the thief will be beaten by the crowds upon discovery. There is voter intimidation, but these votes will be annulled by the Electoral Commission. This is India – flawed, but it’ll take on all comers.

Bollywood in flux

A question that has been asked previously in India is why it takes foreigners to make truly excellent movies about India. Gandhi is one example, made by Richard Attenborough, and now Slumdog Millionaire, based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A. Like Amitabh Bachchan himself says, Bollywood engages in “escapism, fantasy and incredulous posturing” – will this change with films such as SM? Slumdog has one thing that is definitely true: although it’s a feelgood film to the core, it is still gritty (the shaky camera says so). Curiously, the Indians involved in the movie have tried to claim it as an Indian phillum. This troubles me – it’s the vision of British Producers and a Director who exercised near-total control over the movie. It is not an Indian movie because it was shot in India with Indian actors - if anything, it should be classified as a hybrid.

"India lives in Dharavi. Our cinema is Disneyland. It is all about fantasy. If I make a film like 'Slumdog Millionaire' I will not get any distributors and no-one will touch this film. Indian consumers don't need such subjects and it does not bother them."
Veteran Director, Mahesh Bhatt

It is sad, as I have often lamented, that Bollywood chooses to make so many unintelligent films year after year. To be sure, there is a definite place for movies such as Krazzy 4 & Karzzz (not in my collection though), but sometimes we yearn for something more substantial. Maybe I am overeducated and middle-class, but I like intelligent movies occasionally. There has been substantial improvement recently, with Taare Zameen Par, Ghajini and Gandhi My Father. But then there have been mind-numbingly asinine phillums such as ‘Golmaal Returns’. One thing is for sure – Bollywood is taking note.

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