I don't have a problem with anyone making a film on India's problems. (Or
Mumbai's) . And I couldn't care less who makes a film, writes a book, tells a story, or sings a song about anything or anyone: insider or outsider. Gregory David Roberts or Satyajit Ray. Or which light it shows India in: shining or dim.
I loved Danny Boyle's earlier film Trainspotting. But Slumdog Millionaire just doesn't cut it for me as a film.
What didn't work for me was the treatment; three things in particular.
The episodic construction: 33 horrors and a happy ending (Shit. Acid blindings. Child prostitution. Begging. Rape. And so forth. You get the drift...)
The characters: cardboard and one-dimensional. (I've never seen a film before where every single adult is uniformly nasty, if not downright evil.)
The 'garbage tourism' feel, which some have called 'poverty porn': I have no objections to porn per se - there's good porn and bad porn. It all depends on the perspective. And on the treatment. The reason this has the touristy feel (as opposed to the travel feel, which is about curiosity, exploration and discovery) is because it is so singularly uncurious. If Edmund Hillary famously said he climbed Everest because it was there, this films a garbage can because it is there. But it doesn't do anything interesting with the garbage can. Yes, we all know begging, rape and child prostitution exist, not to mention acid blindings - but surely they need some treatment beyond, "They exist so let's shoot them."
Gregory David Roberts also located his bestselling novel Shantaram in the slums of Mumbai. And I loved it, including its pulp fiction form and feel. The lepers who sell fake medicines, the experience of shitting in the slums, the milieu, the energy, the characters. They were all mad and bad and wild and crazy. They had nuances. He did something with them - he didn't just stand there and say: "Oh my god! A slum! Gawp!"
So did Fernando Meirelles in his recent film Blindness, based on Jose Saramago's novel of the same name. Meirelles earlier made City of God, which is often invoked when Slumdog is discussed. In Blindness, he uses blindness as a central plot element - an entire city turns blind - and as an extreme backdrop to explore the human psyche. Sure, there are those who take advantage of the situation. And there are others who don't. And 'good vs evil' is not the only axis along which the characters are treated in the film. There are strong fictional characters. They have shadings. They have other elements to them.
While some groups have protested Blindness (saying it demeans the blind), that's not what I took away. But while Meirelles does not in any way - explicitly or implicitly - treat blindness as demeaning, Slumdog treats poverty as an outpost of hell, peopled by living monsters. Its treatment seems to imply that poverty creates uni-dimensional monsters, not real, rounded human beings. (It's not the poverty, stupid. It's the treatment.)
Going by the acclaim that Slumdog has gathered, should writers now treat all characters in poor settings as single-sheet cardboard and only those in more affluent settings as rounded flesh and blood? Or should poor 'characters' also get some scriptwriting attention and be constructed in ways that are unique? Can a protagonist be treated as a straight line just because he is poor? Would Ray's Pather Panchali have got such worldwide acclaim if Durga and Apu had been as unipolar as Slumdog's Jamal? And should we, as viewers, lower all our cinematic expectations just because a film is set in a slum?
Perhaps all this would not have mattered if a lesser-known filmmaker had made Slumdog. But when a filmmaker with Boyle's credentials comes into the picture, one does have expectations. And to be fair, some of these are met. The energy, the camerawork, the music - these are all Slumdog's strengths.
But I still don't understand why an ordinary fast-paced film is being treated as a cinematic masterpiece. As Namrata Joshi wrote, "Why is the world reacting as though someone has done something startlingly new to cinema?"
It's a mystery. More so since Boyle seems to have got his cues straight from Bollywood. Like Baz Luhrmann, who
at least took the right things from Bollywood. He took the trappings: the glitz colour music dance spectacle. ("Spectacular! Spectacular" as one of the characters from Moulin Rouge says flamboyantly in a song whose lyrics include: "Elephants! Bohemians! Indians! and courtesans! Acrobats! and juggling bears! exotic girls! fire eaters! Muscle men, contortionists!")
That's Bollywood. The plot is irrelevant, the song sequences dazzling. Why think when you can see? Why meditate when you can levitate?
But who lifts plot elements from Bollywood? Or its characters and clichés? (There is no doubt Bolly scripts and treatment are both improving with a new generation of directors and writers entering the fray - see Om Shanti Om, Johny Gaddar, Life in A Metro etc. But these are still exceptions, not the rule. And it is of course a supreme irony that while Bollywood has been struggling to get a foothold in the Oscar best foreign film category, a Bollywood wannabe may walk away with the top honours: Best Film in the English Language.
At the end of the day, this is nothing but a boy-meets-girl Bollywood pastiche shot in exotic slum locales. But on top of everything else, what Slumdog lacks is Bollywood's trademark strengths: The oomph. The sizzle. The razzmatazz. And the masala. Where's the masala?
In its place is a gaping void. So how many horrors does a film need to fill a black hole? 33 and a happy ending? Who knows? Who cares?
Anyway, in the end, boy gets rich, boy gets girl, everyone's happy -- and it's all just slumbug.
Bishakha Datta, a writer and filmmaker with extensive media experience, is the programme director of Point of View