In The Armchair

Slumdog Millionaire

Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on November 22, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire is based on Vikas Swarup’s Q & A, a book I picked up at random from Landmark in Kolkata a few years ago.  The book had an great concept; the execution was passable.  I got the same feeling from the movie.

The story is about slum kid Jamal who grows up and gets on Who Wants to be a Millionaire (probably Kaun Banega Crorepati).  He gets all the answers right, which makes the police think he’s cheating.  They take him to the lockup, where he tells his life’s story and how he knew the answers to all those questions.

Slumdog Millionaire is not for those with weak hearts — or stomachs.  The violence is graphic and explicit.  You can almost feel someone’s head splitting open like a coconut when it’s hit with a club.  Mutilation and brutality abound.  The targets are often little kids.  The other side of the coin is the frofusion of filth.  The filth gets as graphic and explicit as it’s possible for filth to get, including one particularly cringe-inducing scene at the beginning of the movie.

What is the purpose of the glut of violence and filth in a movie like this?  The movie tries to depict the life of a slum-dweller.  The depiction of slums in India is not over the top.  Indeed, most Indians going about life’s business in big cities (even those not living in slums) have been in close proximity to slums very similar to those depicted in this movie, with their attendant filth, at some point.  I have walked on huge pipes surrounded by gigantic open sewers on occasion, and I was always middle class.  I was in a taxi that drove through small pukka roads carved out of landfill mountains on which slum-urchins were scavenging for bottles, plastic and paper.  The levels of violence we see in the movie are completely commonplace in that world.  The filth and violence simply serve to tell the audience where the protagonist comes from.

Still, I think the writer (or director?) carried the debasement a little too far with the “Amitabh Bachchan” stunt; it was gratuitous and absolutely unrealistic.  It just doesn’t seem like anyone, even a slum child, would do that.  Another slightly gratuitous scene is the Hindu mob, everybody’s favourite punching bag.  While violence of the type shown did happen, I think it happened at times of stress and tension when people were already scared.   Not out of the blue on a pleasant, sunny day without any provocation.  But perhaps I can explain this away: maybe that, from the kids’ perspective, it really was a normal sunny day.  It just didn’t seem that way.

Watching the movie, I almost felt it was Bollywood.  The grittiness, the angles: it had a Bollywood feel.  Not the “masala” Bollywood, but the more realistic style that has been catching on lately.  But interestingly for such an Indian-style movie, this movie is not made by Indians.  Sometimes I think that makes it have little details that are so commonplace to us Indians that we don’t notice them, like the sparking noise made by pantographs sparking as they pass over power line junctions.  Beaufoy and Boyle, the writer and director, did a great job, despite occasional glitches: there were a few times when I thought the movie seemed a little lost, as if the director was wondering, “What next? Should I do this or that?”.  But that’s just a minor foible.  One sequence I especially liked was the “TV gatherings” sequence, familiar to all Indians, where almost the entire country comes together at the same time through some shared interest to gawp at any TV available: at a neighbour’s house, at an electronics shop.  Rahman’s music sets the perfect tone.

On to the most glaring deficiency in the movie.  Somehow, they failed to explain how Jamal and his friends learned flawless English.  (Or was the English in this movie supposed to be Hindi really, translated for Western audiences?)  In the novel, this has a specific, plausible explanation.  The movie does away with this.  What’s grown-up Jamal doing that lets him dress so well?  He looks like a well-heeled yuppie with a rich dad.  No explanation.

The actors were great. I thought both Dev Patel and Freida Pinto seemed a little too genteel for their characters — they look like well groomed, privileged rich kids — but their acting was pretty plausible.  I especially liked the two “kid Jamals”.  Very believable, and their make-up was great.  They did have the ungroomed look of slum kids.  I am quickly becoming a fan of Tanay Chheda’s (who played middle Jamal) acting.  He was fantastic as Rajan Damodaran in Taare Zameen Par, and he did a fantastic job in this movie too.  Irfan Khan is dependable as always.  His character comes off as unsympathetic but not malicious.

The truebred Bollywood dance sequence at the end of the movie was just an excellent dessert.  Even though Dev Patel and Freida Pinto can’t dance.


2 Responses

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  1. ecochic said, on November 22, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    Nice review!

  2. Kaffir said, on July 27, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    TV shows like ‘Who wants to be a millionaire” are not telecasted live, and are pre-recorded. 🙂

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