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.
Monday, January 26, 2009
Saturday, January 03, 2009
As I start the new year with a reflection on the Hindi films I watched last year, the first thought that comes to my mind is that 2008 was not like 2007. What a dumb statement, this one? Is it possible at all for a year to be like another? But when I say that 2008 was 'different' as compared to 2007, I am referring to a very significant difference. I just didn't watch as many films as I did in the previous year. While in 2007 I had watched almost every major Hindi film that was released, I could catch very few in the theatres in 2008 (although I did clear a lot of my backlog by watching on DVD some of the films I had missed).
The other difference between the two years was in the overall quality of films released. In 2007, the overall quality of films was quite good. So good, that instead of the usual Top 10 list, I was forced to do a Top 20. Not that we saw many masterpieces in 2007, but there was a large number of films that I enjoyed watching. The same cannot be said about the films released in 2008. I have really struggled to complete a list of 10 best films I watched during the year. Barring a few (2 to be precise), I've had issues with all the films that make it to my Top 10 list. They were flawed, no two ways about it, but almost all of them had something that made me like those films.
Let me get on with the list then:
10. Welcome to Sajjanpur – Fine, coming from someone like Shyam Benegal, this film was the very definition of expectation mismatch, be it the barrage of risqué dialogue or the slightly inept handling of multiple social issues. Yet, the first 'rural' Hindi film in ages had a rather unpretentious charm. A lot of the credit for this must go to writer Ashok Mishra who imparted the screenplay with some endearing supporting characters and earthy dialogues. Here was a film that was clearly written by someone who thought in Hindi. Ila Arun as the hilariously superstitious woman and Ravi Jhankal as the eunuch who wins a local election were an absolute delight to watch.
9. U, Me Aur Hum – One never expected Ajay Devgan to chose a mushy subject as his directorial debut. It was, therefore, a very pleasant surprise to see him impart this romantic tale with so much emotion. The film about a couple's struggle with Alzheimer's takes a while to get going, but once it finds its tone, it's an emotionally engaging film. Of course, it tends to get a bit dialogue heavy (with the wordplay bordering on excessive at time), but it's made with so much heart hat one can't but applaud Ajay Devgan's sincerity as a director. The music, though good, is strictly functional, except for the title track, which is musically and lyrically wonderful. Apne rang ganvaye bin mere rang mein rang jao – when was the last time one heard a film song sum up the essence of marriage with such simplicity, economy and impact?
8. Mumbai Meri Jaan – Nishikant Kamath's Mumbai Meri Jaan looked at the aftereffects of the Mumbai train blasts through six parallel narrative threads. This was a truly well-intentioned film with some very good performances (Paresh Rawal, Kay Kay, Irrfan Khan and Madhavan) and some great cinematic moments, but the impact of the film was diluted due to the temptation of the writer and director to give concrete denouements to each story through quick-fix solutions. The overall tone of the film, thus, bordered on being preachy. Still, it was a laudable effort.
7. Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na - At the story/plot level, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na was nothing but another stereotypical college romance that culminates in a horrendously clichéd airport climax. But films are not about one-line plot descriptions. Abbas Tyrewala proved that with some clever and inspired writing, the most irritating clichés of Hindi films can be given a delicious zing. Add to that the effort that had clearly gone into providing flesh and depth to most of the characters, even the most peripheral and stereotypical one. And, oh yes, the much dreaded airport climax. Right from the time the final act started rolling with Jai's one chance of living up to his father's name and doing something 'heroic', till the referential final shot, the sequence of events was madcap, crazy, completely bizarre, but so darn funny that one was convinced that airport climaxes can be interesting too.
6. Jodhaa Akbar – With Jodhaa Akbar, Ashutosh Gowarikar attempted to create an 'immortal' love story out of the relationship between Akbar and his Rajput queen Jodhaa, a relationship that doesn't get more than two sentences in history books. A love story in a historical perspective was a great idea, but Ashutosh could not decide whether his focus should be on the love story or history. He kept jumping unsurely from one to other, such that there were times where too much stock is used up for events that did not impact the Jodhaa Akbar story. However, the film really came on its own when it focused on the lead characters (played remarkably by Hrithik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). They made the ideal Akbar and Jodhaa. And the chemistry between them was – for want of a better word - perfect. Despite my reservations, I was quite taken in by the painstaking research, the faithful recreation of the Mughal era, and A R Rahman's divine music, which had not appealed much as an audio only experience, but worked wonderfully in the context of the film. The picturization of Khwaja Mere Khwaja was the Piéce de Résistance.
5. Aamir – Raj Kumar Gupta's impressive directorial debut - Aamir is one of the better efforts of filmmaking in recent times. Many films have been made on the subject of Islamic fundamentalism, but in most cases – like Subhash Ghai's Black & White – these films end up sounding like a sermon, their preachy-ness in fact turns counterproductive. Where Aamir scored was that the entire film was structured as a thriller – and a very good thriller at that. So you got the 'message' without getting a feeling of being talked down. A few minutes into the film I was completely engrossed in Aamir's ordeal, and as the film accelerated to its climax – a predictable but truly heart-rending one – I was completely bowled over. I didn't care if there was any truth in the allegation that it was 'plagiarized' from Cavite.
4. Rock On - Plot-wise there was nothing remarkably new in Rock On. Even the way some of the scenes unfolded was quite predictable. Yet, the entire film is put together with such warmth and honesty that it does not fail to talk directly to the audience. It's the film that appeals to the heart. The credit for this must go to Abhishek Kapoor who wrote and directed this film with utmost honesty and conviction. One of the reasons why the film worked so well for me was that almost every actor - Farhan Akhtar, Arjun Rampal, Prachi Desai & Purab Kohli - came up with an instantly relatable performance. But the real knock-out was Shahana Goswami who, I think, came up with the best supporting performance of the year.
3. A Wednesday – Ever been enthralled by a film whose underlying ideology is something you vehemently oppose? Neeraj Pandey's A Wednesday was one such film for me. The vigilante ideology of the film was undoubtedly irresponsible, but as a thriller, this film worked for me because of its tight paced execution and a superb display of acting by Naseeruddin Shah. Just his monologue in the climax, where he so powerfully depicted the common man's anger with the system, was enough to make this one of my favorite films of the year. The climax was written with such careful restraint that the film successfully managed to drive home a point (even though I disagree with it completely) without being preachy at all. The film also boasted of some noteworthy supporting performances by Aamir Bashir and Jimmy Shergill. One issue that I had with this film was that in order to make this into a thriller, the director cheated with the audience on several occasions.
2. Oye Lucky Lucky Oye – There's something about the way Dibakar Bannerji captures the essence of Delhi on film. His Delhi is not the clichéd touristy India Gate-Red Fort-Qutub Delhi. His is the middle class Delhi of Punjabi Bagh and Rajouri Garden. Never, since Sai Panjpe's delightful Chashme Baddoor, has Delhi been captured with so much honesty (and detailing) as it has been in Dibakar's films – first Khosla Ka Ghosla and now Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. Oye Lucky Lucky Oye is a delicious tale of a thief who attains celebrity status by the sheer simplicity with which he executes his plans. The beauty of the film lies in the detailing and the way humor is woven into the script. Abhay Deol proves yet again that when it comes to script-sense he is miles ahead of anyone else in the industry.
1. Mithya – Finally, the film that came closest to perfection – Rajat Kapoor's Mithya. A one line description of the plot of Rajat Kapoor's Mithya might sound so uninteresting and clichéd that it could put off anyone. After all, the concept of look-alikes has been beaten to death in Hindi – and, if I might say, Indian – cinema. You could also dismiss the film as another rehash of Chandra Barot's Don and the innumerable remakes it spawned in various Indian languages. Rajat Kapoor and co-writer Saurabh Shukla took the worst of all 'Bollywood' clichés, developed them around the theological concepts of Maya and Mithya, and created a tale that was intelligent, refreshingly original and remarkably layered. Ranvir Shorey's portrayal of the complex role of the protagonist was easily the performance of the year.