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!