Monday, 22 June 2009

SLUMDOG OR HANGDOG? I.T. finally takes on the Oscar winner

If Slumdog Millionaire had been a Hollywood film, rather than a British one, would it have been greeted by shocked disgust by British critics? Having finally seen it, I don't begrudge it its Oscar--it falls into the proud tradition of Forrest Gump. In fact, Dev Patel's hangdog face would be perfect if Bollywood ever decide to do a musical version of Gump; he could play in the IPL cricket, serve against Pakistan, whatever. But I wish it had been considered in the foreign film category, because its closest equivalent is Life Is Beautiful. Both are films whose basic horrors are true, but whose approach to them is to use them as devices in order to make a larger, and less horrific point. In the case of Slumdog, this use is far more obvious, because it is so contrived--stemming from the quiz-show questions to cover a potted cross-section of the dark side of life in India.

Slumdog is a watchable feel-good film, and indeed was sold as such (see above), albeit one whose twists are both cliched and telegraphed, full of 'Ray Charles could see THAT coming' moments. It's told in flashback from what appears to be the Indian version of Midnight Express, as if Jamal had wandered into an Alan Parker movie. Jamal's brother has chosen old-time Hollywood, as he features in the Indian version of Angels With Dirty Faces (and with a nod to more recent American gangsterism, Madhur Mittal looks almost like an American black).

Of course, I am willing to cut them a little slack in terms of relating to Bollywood conventions, and a little good natured hommage is always appropriate in a film you're enjoying (though oddly enough never in a film you don't) but it is hard to enjoy such contrivance and cliche. Even English cliche, in the enormous caca pooh-pooh joke young Jamal endures, methaphorically. The contrivance comes via The Millionaire programme, adding organically to the drama only once, in the late interchange between Patel and Anil Kapoor, about the Jack Hobbs answer. Otherwise, it's a nice gimmick to drive a plot told in flashback alongside one in real time, but contrivance? Falling off a train and rolling up literally to the Taj Mahal? Jamal comes back more often than Monty Python's limbless knight

This is India presented in terms of the things most westerners know about it already, which is to say, cliches: from call centers to slums. And its overall message, that watching TV shows like Milllionaire will somehow transform India into a country where the Hindu mobs cheer Jamal on rather than burn his slum and kill his mother seems somehow facile, as if Thomas Friedman's idea that all the world is fat like his America, had somehow come true. Oscar loves this kind of thing.

And now that Jamal is a milionaire, I expect a Rocky III type sequel: he got what he wanted but he lost what he had! Jamal has to fend off thousands of friends, ersatz relatives, and strangers with their hands out; bandits aiming at robbing the Muslim millionaire; he decides to own a cricket team in the IPL; Latika decides she wants a Bollywood career--pure Oscar gold!

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