ARTYFACTS: Slumdog Millionaire - beggars belief

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire - beggars belief

Assault on probability
I don't often cut out of watching a movie, but I was glad to abandon this one. It's an assault on probability, with a plot that repeatedly asks the audience to believe a long series of totally unlikely events. Latika mysteriously pops up far too frequently. How many boy beggars get $100 dollar notes from tourists? Many movies have at least one coincidence but few take coincidences as the basis of the entire plot. Once they had agreed to the convention of linking the answers to real-life events through flashbacks, the die was cast. What is odd is that the coincidences were truly unbelieveable. They are an artifice to keep the plot moving.

Even worse is the HUGE coincidence that the 'answer incidents' were in exactly the same chronological order as the questions. I found this ridiculous and something that was clearly impossible to 'write out' once they had embarked on the parallel worlds story arc. 

There's also one point where it's worse than coincidence, that's the appearance of the small child dressed as the blue Hindu God. Did Hindu iorters really send their young children into the slums dressed like this when they were mudering, raping and burning its inhabitants? That was trite.

Magic realism?
I'm not saying that movies can't show improbable events, it's just that these are normally framed as magic realism, fantasy, sci-fi etc. If it was made as a form of magic realism, I'd go with it, but it wasn't. Here we have a hugely unrealistic film that's lauded for its realism.

There's no evidence that Bombay bandits blind beggars. 

Danny Boy's Trainispotting was a drug-fuelled, dreamscape, full of starenge episodes and tall tales. It was a trip of sorts. SM seems to follow in its footsteps but where's the rationale for the tall tales in this one? Is it meant to be a ridiculous Mamma Mia feelgood experience where we're expected to abandon all sense of reality? I wasn't sure. 

Bollywood fairytale?
Does it follow some sort of Bollywood conventions? It certainly has the cadence of a musical, as it is regularly interrupted by the music and pzazz of Who wants to be a millionaire?, like musical interludes.Can you really sue the 'this is India, and don't use your western logic' argument. The chances of a slum boy winning a million on Who wants to be a Millionaire? is as likely as India winning the European Song Contest. I don't buy it. If this is a hoage to  overly romanticised, rags to riches, Bollywood Cinderella stories, then you can keep them. It's precisly that tale that allows people with money to maintain their position of superiority. If it's a fairy tale, then let's not pretend it has much to say about the real India or real slums.

I just couldn't stick with it as it repeatedly threw me out of the narrative with stupid links between the questions and his supposed experiences as a beggar. I'm not convinced that this was deliberate. Would this story have been better if the writer had come up with more plausible reasons for his knowledge? I think so.

There's another catchall argument that could be used to rescue this script. It's his destiny. You can't argue with this, as it allows anything to happen to anyone, no matter how unlikely, bacause of his...well destiny. This is supernatural tosh. Boys don't escape the slums by appearing on TV and answering questions they are unlikely to know. They stay in the slums. In fact our destiny as viewers was set at the start as the finale was given away at the beginning of the film. To use 'karma' as a plot device is lazy. Now if he had taken the karma concept and used it to explain the none too attractive side of the caste system and Indian inequalities, that would have been interesting. I'd again say that this would have been a better script if this had been avoided (I'm not sure it was really intended). It is written - badly.

Slum chic
The vast majority of people who watch this will never go to India, and of those that do, few will venture into the slums. It's easy to assimilate poverty through a western quiz programme and the lush, warm technicolour. Boyle has ramped up the colour balance and shot this as though the slums were some sort of paradise. This doesn't deal with any of the issues. It simply Bollywood's up poverty for a western audience. There's no real look at the causes of the banditry, police corruption, begging, caste discrimination, religious conflict, dalits..... 

Perhaps the most cringe inducing moment of the film is when Jamal says 'Ypu wanted to see the real India' and the US woman, who had just been the subject of a mass theft, hands him a $100 note saying  'Now we'll show you the real America'. Nowe this could ahve been an interesting scene, full of first/third world weirdness, but it was just bad writing and crass.

What's the real message here? With a little (no a whole truckful) of luck, you to can be a Millionaire. That rings hollow, especially in these troubled times. It's ultimately an empty vessel as it poses no problems, solutions, issues, only fantasy over-scripted coincidences.

A 'feelgood' movie on issues that should make us feel bad, even outraged.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Him getting on the show is not fully explained?
It is..kind of. He just called the show and answered the phone question. That is assummed..simple bcoz..thats the ONLY way he could have gotten on the show.

There's no evidence that Bombay bandits blind beggars.
I am Indian. That stuff is real!

How many boy beggars get $100 dollar notes from tourists?
He doesn't get a 100 dollar bill while begging. He gets it doing shady business outside the Taj Mahal.

5:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scenes of poverty and squalour may appear romantic to Westerners and to our snooty elite but for ordinary Indians they are nothing new. They are an everyday reality. However, one wonders what sort of mind can find such images aesthetically pleasing. Party-hopping socialites (for example, Shobhaa De after all her bombast of "enough is enough" after the Mumbai attack, went and watched a pirated copy!) who are distanced from such reality may find this film an "eye-opener" but for us it IS just poverty-porn. Leaving that aside, I have eight other objections to the film.
1) The director seems to RELISH showing violence. Some of it (like the police-torture) is quite needless. And why was the boy arrested in the first place? On what charge? Was it realistic?
2) How can a boy growing up in slums speak such accented English? Even if one assumes that the language he actually uses to communicate with the game-show host and the police officer is Hindi (granting the director the creative license to use a language better suited for international audiences), there are 2 instances where it is stretched too far: (a) when the boy becomes a ‘guide’ for foreign tourists at the Taj Mahal & (b) when he becomes a substitute-operator at the call-centre.
3) When the boy uses his ‘lifeline’ during the game-show, his friend discovers that she has forgotten her mobile and has to run back for it. This is plain Bollywood masala! Did the director HAVE to make it so melodramatic?
4) How did the boy know who invented the revolver just by watching his brother use it?
How does his friend know about Benjamin Franklin?
5) “Darshan Do Ghanshyam” is NOT written by Surdas. It is written by Gopal Singh Nepali for the movie Narsi Bhagat (1957). This song is also credited as traditional and originally written by 15th century poet Narsi Mehta, whose life that film is based on.
6) After winning the game-show, the boy sits on the railway platform and nobody recognizes him! Considering the popularity of the show, is that realistic?
7) Two glaring omissions: To qualify for the show one has to answer several GK questions over phone or Internet. Even after making it to the show, a contestant can reach the hot-seat, only after “fastest finger first”. All this is conveniently forgotten in the film.
8) And of course the greatest flaw in the storyline: programmes like 'Kaun Banega Crorepati' and 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire' are NOT telecast live. As a result the entire structure of the film becomes unrealistic. For a film that boasts of being realistic such a flaw cannot be overlooked.
Anyone else wants to say this is a g-r-e-a-t film despite all these flaws?

5:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah you are right Donald, the movie lacks depth, its a fairy tale wrapped in a reality gift wrap and even that is fake reality. As you have mentioned there is no evidence that the begging mafia mutilates the children. That was going way off the mark. I had to force my son to forward the movie as my six-year-old daughter was also watching the movie. I did not want her to see the violence and that crude scene where a child is blinded.

It is not a logical movie, how come they have swept off eight Oscars?

The root cause of all this chaos is never touched, that would have been meaningful. I guess that was not the objective of the movie.

When I read City of Joy, the way it tells about the issues is beautiful. The mass exodus of farmers is traced back to the cycle of poverty kick started by the droughts and floods. The Hindu priests latching on to peasants squeezing their life blood for ceremonies like marriage, birth and death are shown as the root cause of this inescapable web of poverty.
Here in this movie none of the issues are touched even vaguely. India is a land of culture and beauty. The spirituality of this land has a deep beauty that satiates one's soul. None of the real things are put across. They have started with a few themes and woven a web of improbable events around these.
It is wonderful to know that you of the caste system and the various issues that bleed my country. Hell, had the English been ruling, I would have been your slave. Just imagine how unjust those times were. Just sixty years ago, such dynamics existed.
I guess Indians still seek validation from the West as the slave mentality will take another century to erase from the minds.

Hope there is some positive effect of this movie. The fact is that even we Indians are insulated from these realities. We exist in different worlds. In a way some sensitization will happen, like I have made up my mind that I will be visiting orphanages. Hope the images of filth and deprivation do not overpower the priceless jewels that are embedded in our culture and History. Beautiful article Donald, thanks for leading me to this one. Take care

2:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The child in the slum which was shown during the violence was doing a sort of play inside. He wasn't dressed up like that.

3:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Donald Clark really has "Enough time to attend, read, like, watch and comment on anything I want", as he claims in the preface to his blog ARTYFACTS, I wish he would spend a little of that time proofing the many spelling and grammar mistakes in his latest comments on Slumdog Millionaire. I counted 10 alone. One expects this sort of literary laziness from the comments of internet respondents, but surely the the Blogger-in Chief ought to have more pride in his own writing. Or - hire a proof reader!

3:06 am  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

'Donaldaw' - can't you spell? Who rattled your cage? Stop being such a pedant. I rattle these things out at pace and don't give a damn about you're petty schoolmasterish attitude to spelling and grammar. If you don't like it, stop reading - bye....

10:19 am  
Blogger Gavin Cooney said...

Donald... it was a (wonderful) fairytale about fate! That simple.

2:41 pm  
Blogger Donald Clark said...

Agreed - that's why it's a simplistic film and simply awful. Fate is the excuse for keeping lower Hindu castes in desperate poverty and should not be celebrated by western writers who don't really understand what's going on.

To be clear, the caste system is deeply embedded in Hinduism and Vedic thought. It uses a hereditary based system along with marriage restrictions and downright racism to perpetuate what amounts to modern slavery. 'Fate' is the religious excuse that perpetuates this system.

1:27 pm  

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