Much like the game show that forms the crux of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, the experience of watching this much-talked about film is all about choices.
The first choice, which a fairly large number of people in India have greedily grabbed, is to jump into the high-decibel debate about how this film represents ‘poverty-porn’ at its worst. You could argue that it’s nothing but selling India’s poverty to the West, looking at India from the jaundiced viewpoint of a westerner whose vision of India is limited to chaos, poverty, slums, riots, beggars, Taj Mahal, and yes, call centers.
Or, you could analyze the film in all earnestness. You could start pointing out all the flaws in the Golden Globe award winning and Oscar nominated screenplay (which, honestly, are many) and argue against the implausible contrivances of the screenplay. As one of characters in the film says, it is all ‘bizarrely plausible’. You could raise a genuine objection about how for all his commendable acting display, Dev Patel’s accent was all wrong for the part, or how the grown-up Jamal didn’t even look like a ‘slumdog’. You could even talk about how 'unreal' was it to have slum boys speak in English, or how tacky the choreography for the Jai Ho song in the end looked, or bash the writer for some really corny dialogue, or simply dismiss this film as a Bollywood 101 for westerners, what with all the elements of a quintessential Bollywood masala film in ample doses – themes of destiny, rise of the underdog, unbelievable coincidences, seemingly doomed romance ending on a feel-good note, song and dance, etc. etc.
Or, you could simply sit back and surrender yourself to the manic energy with which the film narrates itself and get drawn into the emotional whirlpool created by director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy. Like any fairy tale, Slumdog Millionaire sets up the story by putting our protagonist is real adverse circumstances, only to resolve them in a manner that makes you feel for the protagonists. As the film is being marketed, it is really a feel-good movie, where all that matters is a happily-ever-after ending.
As the film unfolded itself, I subconsciously selected option 3 and emerged immensely entertained and satisfied by the time Jamal and Latika united and started dancing to Rahman’s infectious Jai Ho in the closing sequence. It is one of the films that entertain you so greatly that the flaws simply do not register in your mind as long as you’re watching the film. The kinetic camerawork and Rahman’s thumping background score play an important role in sustaining the audience’s emotions at a constant high note. The stand-out sequence is one of the early scenes where the kid brothers – Jamal and Salim – are chased by a policeman through the slums. Agreed that this scene was exactly the one that showcased all the filth, but the sheer energy of the camera was mindblowing. It captured the spirit of the protagonists to triumph against all odds.
The other day I was reading Roger Ebert’s blog where he talked about how he ends up liking some films because of the feeling of 'Elevation' they give him. He goes on to quote Jonathan Haidt, who coined the term elevation, "Powerful moments of elevation sometimes seem to push a mental 'reset button,' wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, and optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration." That’s exactly how I felt while watching Slumdog Millionaire. I felt elevated, I felt an uplift, I felt good. To me the infamous excreta scene was not about propagating the Indian stereotype to the West, it was a depiction of a boy’s determination to overcome all odds to get what he so desperately wanted. This scene for me underlined the film’s theme – the ‘human capacity to hope’ (Ebert’s words) – and set the tone for what was to come. As the film traversed its path through the destiny of the protagonists and raced towards the finale, I felt (again using Ebert’s words) “the welling up of a few tears in my eyes, a certain tightness in my throat, and a feeling of uplift”. And that’s what made the experience of watching Slumdog Millionaire so worthwhile.
If for a moment, I distance myself from the experience I had while watching the film and reflect back on the film, I will choose Option 2 and judge the film on its merit, and that’s when all the flaws of the film will start tumbling out. People who call this film over-rated are not too wrong. Despite its great entertainment value, I’m not really sure if it qualifies as a great film, or even the best of 2008. It is here that I feel that it is the Rocky of these times. Like Rocky won the Best Film Oscar over greats such as Taxi Driver, Network and All The President’s Men in 1976, Slumdog Millionaire is probably getting all the attention over other possibly more deserving films because in these bleak times there is nothing more satisfying than a feel-good film.
So, does this film, in my opinion, deserve all the awards it’s gathering?
Hell, no. Like I said, it’s not a ‘great’ film in that respect.
But will it get the Oscar for best film, and for our very own Rahman?
Definitely. It’s written.