Why this Bombay girl doesn’t think Slumdog Millionaire is all that

All around me everyone’s singing the praises of this breakout movie from Bombay, and I just can’t stay silent anymore.

I saw Slumdog Millionaire soon after it was released. I had high hopes. It certainly sounded interesting, and two of my American colleagues who had seen it couldn’t stop telling me how wonderful it was. Plus, most important, it is set in my former hometown, Bombay.There’s no way I was going to let this one get by.

So I bought the ticket, and I watched it. I found it fairly engaging, and funny in parts, and I liked that it touched upon something most movies made in Bombay never do: the gritty lives of the huge population of slumdwellers who share the city and belong to it just as surely as the Ambanis and the Tatas (the city’s super-rich families) do.

For the record, I absolutely do not agree with all the protests happening right now in Bombay by people who claim the movie needlessly exposes the city’s underbelly. Those protests, I think, reflect elements of mistrust and anger over a foreigner, an Englishman no less, documenting the city’s poverty and, worse, showing it to the rest of the world. After all, this is a country whose memory of colonial exploitation is not yet a very distant one, and where extremist religious movements are getting stronger by the day.

But is Slumdog Millionaire going into my list of great movies? Not a chance.

Why? Because it is nothing more than a slickly packaged Bollywood-style fairytale. A Hindu-Muslim romance, a boy who single-handed goes through every conceivable problem that every poverty-stricken child in India has ever had to go through, a breathless happy ending where the hero gets it all…it’s got every element of a cheesy crowd-pleaser but it also falls terribly short on imagination. Just like any Bollywood movie.

At the same time, though, filmmaker Danny Boyle asks us to stretch our imaginations once too often. It is hard to believe in the glue that holds the movie together–why, for instance, does the protagonist knows the answers to the game-show questions that take us in and out of his past. I’ve known lots of kids from Bombay’s slums in my years in the city, and while many of them are very smart and tough and gritty, to assume that they would know who’s the person depicted on foreign currency, or who is the poet that wrote a song they belt out in the endless compartments of the city’s buzzing local trains is downright stupid.

I know, I know, it’s a movie and it doesn’t all have to be all real. But then, Boyle is not selling this as a Forrest-Gumpian tale that requires you to believe in the impossible. Instead, he plays this as a hard-to-watch story of a young man who does good despite some of the most terrible circumstances anyone could live through.

So here it is in a nutshell: at its best, Slumdog Millionaire is a fairly absorbing movie, chiefly because it shows a side of India that you don’t often see in the movies.

But for the rest, it’s just an unimaginative, weakly-held-together narrative that lacks strong performances by the two lead characters– in fact, it is the actors in smaller roles who do the best job, including Anil Kapoor (a heartthrob with lots of promise when I was a teen in Bombay) as the loutish game-show host.

As for all the awards buzz: since the Oscars are just a popularity contest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Slumdog wins big. After all, it won’t be the first mediocre movie to sweep the Oscars.

Update: My Tamil husband, on reading this post, was quick to remind me that A.R.Rahman does deserve his Oscar nominations for the music score :) I agree!

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Comments

  1. says

    Hi Vaishali, I love your review, not because I have watched the movie and share the same views, but because of the honest opinion that comes forth. The movie released today in Mumbai, and I did not get tickets for the show tonight. Tomorrow, this time, I shall be there in the theatre watching it. I read the book by Vikas Swarup, and it was well-crafted fiction that touched me, solely because of the characters and the insight into the slum life; something that I had not read much about, apart from City of Joy that helped me see Calcutta through the eyes of the author, the movie of the book too had similar reviews in India (underbelly shown to westerners etc.). Forget the critics, I am hoping to see a typical Bollywood movie made by a foreigner, with a typical happy ending:-) and see how the book has been adapted into the screenplay for the movie. I love Anil Kapoor and Irrfan too! Regarding mediocre movies at the Oscars, despite the typical Bollywood-style last 45 minutes, Titanic won so many! I could go on, but this is too lengthy already…

  2. says

    I ve only came across after AR Rahm got the Golden Globe award. I am not worried about story, I usually think the story reaching Oscar is always like a documentary, just wish Like ur Husb another Tamilian (me) that AR. R should win the award!

  3. says

    Excellent points! I loved the movie, tho. I did have some questions about a few things that happened in the plot, but I figured I’d just read the book for clarification.

  4. says

    Excellent points! I loved the movie, tho. I did have some questions about a few things that happened in the plot, but I figured I’d just read the book for clarification.

  5. says

    Hello Vaish – Very good review! I saw the hype, and then mentally wrote it off…(not that I dont watch movies I write off!!).. Well I just think movie makers make a big buck selling glam in India, and poverty to the rest of the world. Pure demand and supply I guess!

    And of course, I cant think of any song of AR I dont like…my bong husb is a bigger fan than me!

    Btw – the grandad in my post is (was) actually my great grandad. My mom wrote the post, and I am now yearning to see a snap of him in uniform!! :-)

  6. says

    Vaishali, Nice review :) i haven’t watched this movie yet, but have been reading 2 different types of reviews one going ga-ga over it and the other one saying it’s not that great. But, you review surely is tempting me to watch it :-) And, i agree with your husband’s comment of ARR :-)

  7. says

    I absolutely agree with you.It is exactly in bollywood style ,but in Hollywood.I saw the movie and was surprised that a slum kid in Mumbai,knew the pic in a foreign currency.Its a laughing matter.Also believe that the protests are just as laughable-they r just because it is documented by foreigner.Such people are just trying get into news and public eye cheap publicity stunt.
    The films much better than the regular masala movies,I must add

  8. says

    Yet to watch the film Vaishali … but do agree somethings are definitely overrated. The same thing happened when Satyajit Ray took “Pather Panchali” overseas … he was accused of selling India’s poverty.
    Rahman does deserve every award .. and that’s coz we know what he delivers … else all awards are a farce I believe.

  9. says

    How I wish GOI reacted and vouched to wipe away slum from Bombay rather than all unwanted reactions which are becoming media focus. ARR deserves Oscar!

  10. says

    Hi Vaishali,
    Thanks for the review. I am really curious about this movie.
    Though not a Tamilian myself, I want AR Rahman to win because he is simply genius & deserves it.

  11. says

    Hi vaishali,
    Good to read all about the hyped movie
    I watched it and my reaction till first half was….God why i am watching all this ruthless reality…
    I know it actually happens,but the blunt treatment to the movie made me feel sick,the other half was though bearably nice
    The thing tht actually spoiled the show was the ENGLISH speaking CHAIWALLA……In English version of movie,the protagonist fail to impact as slum dweller with his ACCENTED English…it was hard to convince since english (unfortunately)is supposed to be a language for educated ones
    Then regarding A.R Rehman,well i dont think Jai ho is his best baby….he had given innumerable gems before this,i wondered where were golden globe and oscar guys then???
    All in all i wish it was not that harshly made,,,,brutal realities with right on your face presentation is too much to bear for a sensitive being like me

  12. says

    hi vaishali, i am SUPPOSED to be working right now – have only 2 hours left before getting ready for waking up the girl and getting started for the weekend (its friday here) but your posts are so engaging – okay this last comment and i am off –

    i saw the film, its definitely been made for a foreign audience – and exposes the dark underbelly as such with such gritty details that its no surprise that it shocks in most part. but had an indian made it would one have been more forgiving that’s the question on my mind. but oh yes meera nair’s salaam bombay was a film in the same setting but with another screen dynamic, wholly different aesthetics.

    but incase that is the case, it should also be noted that loveleen tandon (the casting dir) is also the film’s co director and she has completely shot the indian portions. danny gave her a lot of freedom to work on those bits. and indeed it was her suggestion that the early slum bits be done in hindi. and you are right then about the best and most rivetting performances were from the smaller actors particularly the children in the early parts. the beggar kids swequence is disgusting, rivetting, and possibly true in the first place.

    ten years ago on my first job i did a bit of research on street kids for a docu my boss was supposed to do – in delhi. i met up with some kids at the salam balak trust and just out on the railway station and i do have reasons to believe that they’re life is not as innocent as we’d like to believe.

    on the whole its wholly believable and equally ridiculous that slumdog is up on the oscar list.infact i like that it should sweep all the awards not just the oscars, that’ll be quite in character. a slummy low budget movie making big. (an indie dream come true) that in my opinion is the real fairy tale out here :)

  13. says

    I watched Slumdog Millionaire recently… had mixed feelings about the movie. Thought it was a well-made movie with a unique story…certainly didn’t think that it was award-worthy though(Golden Globes and SAG). There are so many Indian movies I can think of that are so much more deserving of a mention than this one. As for A.R. Rahman (whom I’m a big fan of BTW), I’m actually surprised that his work in this movie actually got him 3 nominations. His music in the movie was good but nothing compared to some of his work in his early days in the business (Roja, Dil Se, Bombay).

  14. says

    I watched Slumdog Millionaire recently… had mixed feelings about the movie. Thought it was a well-made movie with a unique story…certainly didn’t think that it was award-worthy though(Golden Globes and SAG). There are so many Indian movies I can think of that are so much more deserving of a mention than this one! As for A.R. Rahman (whom I’m a big fan of BTW)- I’m actually surprised that his work in this movie got him 3 nominations. His music in the movie was good but nothing compared to some of his work in his early days in the business (Roja, Dil Se, Bombay).

  15. says

    Hello from Michigan. I am just back from seeing Slumdog, mostly decided after seeing your review. I enjoyed it but felt uneasy watching some scenes. I know children are maltreated in every culture of the world and that so bothers me. I try to do my part in my own community with funds etc to help this situation not occur but it is a hard thing to accomplish. My husband has traveled to many places with his job with General Motors (he just retired-lucky me no) and when the scenes in the movie showed the slums, he leaned over and told me it’s much the same in China, Korea, Mexico, Brazil. I know this is a fiction film but to know people are so divided by the haves and have nots truly breaks my heart. I have tried to live simply myself, and my greatest joy is being able to donate money and other items to help make lives better for both children and animals. If I could give one thing to each human it would be a decent education, because with it, you can accomplish anything you set your heart to.

  16. Sri says

    Hi Vaishali! I concur with you 100%. As an Indian, I would say that the reason Slumdog clicked so well with a western audience is because the typical westerner would look down his nose at the running-around-the-trees stuff that the west gets to see (usually only Karan Johar & other big budget flicks get to the cinemas there). They don’t get to see sensitive and thought-provoking films that Bollywood also produces- like Vishal Bharadwaj’s for example. Danny Boyle’s movie has excellent cinematography, a quick pace, and made India accessible to them in a format they were comfortable with. Besides, it promised them the real India. Like you said, the plot is pretty weak, and so is the acting.

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