Subhash K Jha speaks about Slumdog Millionaire

By Subhash K. Jha, Bollywood Hungama News Network

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire makes Mumbai look like a sewer. Anil Kapoor stood up and cheered lustily into the camera when Danny Boyle won the Golden Globe last weekend. I wish I could share his enthusiasm for Danny's phenomenal flight into frenzy. After all the accolades and awards Slumdog Millionaire (SM) proves to be a deafening blow to the year that saw Mumbai go numb with terror.

SM takes nasty below-the-belt potshots at the underbelly of the city, portraying Mumbai as the armpit among the metropolises. Mira Nair once paid a warm endearing homage to the street children of Mumbai in Salaam Bombay. Long before, Satyajit Ray in Pather Panchali portrayed rural India as poor but never as a gutter of misery. It's now Danny Boyle's turn to do a 'Slam' Mumbai. The coming-of-age tale about three orphaned chawl kids bears just a passing resemblance to Boyle's rightly-celebrated Trainspotting where the director trailed a bunch of misfits through the streets of Edinburgh.

Slumdog Millionaire is Trainspotting on steroids. It's a beefed-up look at the scummy side of Mumbai, bewildering in its obsession with discovering life in the chawls of Dharavi (curiously the protagonist Jamal is referred to as "the boy from Juhu") as being a facsimile of that drain-inspector's report which Mahatma Gandhi had discovered American journalist Katherine Mayo's account of India in Mother India to be. Slumdog Millionaire is worse. It looks at Mumbai as a swarming slum of sleaze sex and crime with characters who seem to have jumped out of Rakesh Roshan's and Manmohan Desai's cinema bruising their deep-focussed emblematic quality while making this huge global leap from 'Bollywood' to 'Hollywood'. After seeing Boyle's much talked-of film it's crystal clear why this murky and squalid portrait of Mumbai has the Americans preening in delight. At one point after being thrashed mercilessly our hero Jamal tells American tourists, "You wanted to see real India? Here it is. "Now we'll show you the real America," the American lady replies handing Jamal a 100-dollar bill. This, without any apparent sense of irony. This isn't the 'real' India. This is India as seen through the eyes of a Westerner who's selling desi squalor packaged as savvy slick entertainment.

There is a very thin line dividing slick from scum. Slumdog Millionaire doesn't stop to make those subtle distinctions. It moves at a frenetic pace creating a kind of sweaty energy that one sees in marathon runners in the last lap of their journey. Boyle is constantly busy whipping up a hysterical banshee of sights and sounds in Mumbai denoting the embittered angry generation of the underprivileged class that grows up in the slums dreaming of the Good Life. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shoots Mumbai with a gun rather than a camera. Every frame conveys the killer instinct. Every shot ricochets across eternity solidifying sounds and feelings that are otherwise intangible.

Yup, this is a film on a mission. It wants to exploit the Mumbai slums as a hotbed of tantalizing images conveying the splendour of squalidity. And to think every prominent of the cast and crew went around proclaiming Slumdog Millionaire would do wonders for Mumbai's tourism industry! Yeah, right. It does as much for the cause of Mumbai as Roland Joffe's The City Of Joy did for Kolkata. That much-vilified film at least secreted a core of humanism under its pretentious surface. Slumdog Millionaire doesn't even pretend to care for the city that it so unabashedly cruises in search of imperialistic tantalization.

From frame 1, Danny Boyle goes for the jugular. Every scent and stench of the city is converted into a liquid asset. Groups of defecating young boys running out in otherworldly ecstasy when they spot Amitabh Bachchan's helicopter hovering abovehead becomes a celebration of lowly life. Our protagonist Jamal dunks himself into excreta from head to toe and wades through the disgusted crowd to get Mr. Bachchan's autograph. The star signs calmly, as though exceptionally smelly young boys covered in human waste are the odour of the day. Such moments define Boyle's attitude to Mumbai. He sees it as city where humour emerges from human waste.

But who's laughing? Even communal riots are not spared of this tantalizing trivialization of abject misery. Rioters descend on a Muslim locality like Bandits attacking a village in the Chambal valley. A mean Mumbai Mafioso (Ankur Vakil) gouges out orphans' eyes and makes them beg on the streets singing what appears to be his favourite 'Bhajan Darshan do ghamshyam' add nauseam. Even Madhur Bhandarkar got it better in Traffic Signal. There's absolutely no sense of historic sensitivity in the narrative. "If it was not for Ram and Allah, my mother would be alive," says our regretful hero Jamal after the riots. Such corny dialogues, so much a part of Vikas Swarup's novel is minimized in the film. But not enough. Some of the outrageously filmy plot maneuverings from the novel like the game show host (played in the film with cheesy relish by Anil Kapoor) turning out to be Jamal's illegitimate father, are done away with. But the film nevertheless remains as wedded to kitsch and as ridden with coincidences and implausibilities as any formula Hindi film. In fact, the two runaway brothers from the chawl being called Salim and Jamal seems like a backhanded homage to Salim-Javed the pair that wrote the hit films of the era that Slumdog Millionaire adopts...the 1970s.

Every sequence is punctuated and edited to accentuate the cinematic aspect of the drama. Each time the game-show host Anil Kapoor has to provide our callow hero Jamal a clue, a flashback highlighting the theme of the quiz-question, is conveniently arranged in the plot. Squalor never appeared designed than it does in Slumdog Millionaire. Bollywood has never been more audaciously honoured. This over-hyped and disappointing film that insults Mumbai, culminates with a Bollywood -styled item song on a railway platform. Mike Myers does it far less self-consciously in The Love Guru.

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