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Monday, February 23, 2009

The Oscars Winning Movie : Between Slums and Underdogs?

By Deepa A.

It has now become almost impossible to view Slumdog Millionaire as just another movie. It arrived on a wave of critical acclaim, wowing film festival audiences and critics, and went onto snap up every award worth its name across the world.

Currently, it has been nominated for 10 Oscars and 11 British Academy of Film and Television Awards. Some have called Slumdog Millionaire a crossover film, in that it pays tribute to India’s Hindi film industry in many ways. Others have called it a realistic portrayal of contemporary India, a claim that has been much contested by those who perceive the film as an outsider’s inaccurate if lovingly captured depiction of poverty.

But it is worth putting aside such claims and counter-claims for the moment to focus on the film itself.

A Life Story of One Person

Based on Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup’s book Q&A, Slumdog narrates the rags-to-riches story of Jamal Malik, who grew up in the slums of Mumbai.

Malik becomes a contestant in the Indian version of the quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, around which the movie is constructed.

Malik’s life unfolds before the viewer in a series of flashbacks as the ‘slumdog’ uses his own experiences to answer each of the questions correctly. That an uneducated “chai-wallah” – Malik earns a living by making tea at a call centre – is within reach of the ultimate prize that any quiz show can offer bothers its host, who unceremoniously dispatches him to the custody of the local police.

After being subjected to third-degree at the police station, Malik tells the police officer in charge how he knew each and every one of the answers. We see that each question nudges a painful memory in Malik’s mindscape; we see the poverty, violence, crime and love in Malik’s life, all of which ultimately conspire to bring him to the contestant’s chair in the quiz show.

Danny Boyle, the movie’s director, and Simon Beaufoy, who adapted the book, give us a movie that is competent in many ways. It is entertaining in parts, and taken separately, each of Malik’s flashbacks portray what is very much the reality for most of India’s poor.

But the controversy over its authenticity perhaps stems from the fact that all these vignettes are knitted together to form the life story of one person. While the quiz show is used in this movie as an excellent cinematic device to weave together the manifold experiences Malik has had in his life, it is not without its pitfalls.

Why would the show feature only questions that are in some way connected to Malik’s life? And why would these questions appear in a chronological manner, corresponding with Malik’s growth from a mischievous child to a teenager who has seen unimaginable violence and crime?

One could say that filmmakers have the cinematic licence to use plot devices in any manner that they find suitable but that hasn’t stopped most critics and columnists, not only in the West but also in India, from calling the movie "realistic".

The movie features clichés about India in general and Mumbai slums in particular, be it about the lack of toilets and sheer physical space, the differences between Hindu and Muslim communities which has resulted in communal violence or the influence of the underworld.

By linking these together, often in an implausible and superficial manner clearly meant to shock the audience, the director offers us something akin to a "Dummy’s Guide to Mumbai Slums". It is surprising that this guide is being touted as the gospel by so many critics and columnists.

Reality Is Sometimes Missing

Slumdog Millionaire is best watched without paying heed to such affectations, for there are several aspects that might rankle the viewer concerned with authenticity. One understands that though the characters in the movie speak English (the writer watched the English version of the movie), in real life they would be speaking either Marathi (the language spoken in the Indian state Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital) or Hindi (India’s national language). But the unmistakable British accent of the actor Dev Patel, who plays Malik, is particularly jarring.

The book The Three Musketeers is an important component of the film; the movie’s protagonists become familiar with the book during the brief time they were in school. It is extremely unlikely that the book, in English, was ever part of the primary school curriculum in Mumbai. The manner in which Malik is shown to know the answers to some of the questions is farcical; for instance, he apparently knows the answer to a query on cricket because he was standing adjacent to a room where the match in question was being viewed on television. Equally fanciful is the notion that a child blinded by a beggar’s cartel would know the name of the US President whose face is on the American 100 dollar bill.

The movie is defined not by the moments that portray aspects of India’s poverty but by Malik’s love for Latika (Frieda Pinto) and to a great extent, his tumultuous relationship with his elder brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). It is to reach Latika, with who he has been in love since he was a child, that Malik appears on the quiz show.

His capers with Salim in their childhood years, set in fast-moving trains and against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal (the most clichéd of India), are some of the most vivacious – as also the most improbable – scenes in the movie.

Yet, walking away from the film, one is confronted with the unpleasant truth that the only semblance of reality it offers comes from Salim. After they are orphaned by the riots, Salim becomes a gangster, eventually finding himself in a situation that he cannot escape from. In a movie that has been called a "fairy-tale", Salim’s story stands out as one of despair. There is no redemption ahead for him and this much we guess even as we watch him as a child.

Unfortunately for most of India’s poor, it is Salim who can hold up a mirror to their lives and not a certain Malik.

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