Serial Bus

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Slumdog Sucks Somewhat

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This Saturday evening, we watched Slumdog Millionaire, after braving a couple of ‘Sold Out’ theaters in Midtown. Even before we went in, I was eager to declare it one of the best movies I’d ever watched. After all, Danny Boyle was well-liked, Rahman composed the score, the cast looked good, the trailer looked wonderful, several critics had raved about it and most importantly, it was based on a novel that I had truly enjoyed reading about 2 years back. They were even talking about Oscars. But, being circumspect by nature, I took care of a little technicality first i.e. I watched the movie before making up my mind. My verdict: a huge disappointment. My astonishment: why nobody gets it.

Please note there may be some spoilers in this post. The story revolves around a slum kid (Jamal) whose checkered past is retold in flashbacks after he has won the Indian version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ and is suspected of cheating. In reality, all questions uncannily link to his life experiences in one strange way after another. And, he’s got a long lost love-interest to track down. Back in 2006, as I read ‘Q and A‘, the novel on which it was based, I wondered why nobody had bothered making a movie on it. Well, Danny Boyle did it, after reluctantly reading a script by Simon Beaufoy. And, Mr Beaufoy very inelegantly killed the source material to create a pastiche that shocks, surprises and pleases the audiences but deviates from what was a hugely promising story.

So, as you would guess, my main gripe about the movie is how the script completely subverted the novel on which it was based. The basic plot elements of a game-show and connections of the questions with the protagonist’s life were preserved but the intelligence of the book was completely watered down. So, while they show that Jamal knows of Ben Franklin’s presence on a $100 bill through the blind boy he met years ago in a subway, the audience is left befuddled as to how a blind beggar knew this fact. Similarly, other connections that were so powerfully explained in the book, appear either tame or ridiculous. As another example, while Jamal is shown to be precocious in certain ways (like his impromptu guide-act at Taj Mahal), he is shown to be inexplicably dumb too. Anyone asked what slogan adorns India’s national emblem can be sincerely confused if aside from ‘Truth Always Wins’, there is a similar option, like ‘Honesty’ or ‘Virtue’. The options given to Jamal, aside from Truth, were Fashion, Lies and something that was even more improbable. And, guess what – our street-smart prodigy goes for an audience poll! I am not sure what Vikas Swarup, the author of Q&A, thought about this dumbing-down of his story.

Secondly, the love angle was accentuated at the expense of other sub-plots and characters. In the movie, Jamal moves from Rs. 16,000 question to Rs. 2,500,000 directly. There were several other excellent stories in the book that explained each and every question. Aside from what was shown in the movie, Jamal lived with a security-fanatic Australian army colonel, worked as a servant to an aging Bollywood film star, lived with a kind priest, rescued a family on a train from a bandit, caught thieves in his employer’s home and worked as a bartender. Contrary to what Beaufoy may have thought, all stories link nicely with Jamal’s life. These stories were suppressed while Jamal’s obsession with Latika was over-engineered. On the other hand, although over 10 minutes were spent digressing to Jamal’s life as a Taj Mahal tourist guide, no obvious link was established with $100 question that followed. Anil Kapoor’s character as the game-show host was crucial to the story in the book however in the movie, he seemed utterly wasted and his motivations were glossed over. Several other characters like the lawyer who saves Jamal (instead of the sympathetic police officer) were removed.

Thirdly, I was appalled by the way the film-makers shunned believability as they developed some characters and situations. I do not wish to join issue with the choice of language as I believe stories can be told equally powerfully in any language. However, I am not sure why the kids spoke in Hindi but the adolescent and young ones spouted English. Why couldn’t the characters speak Hindi or English all along? The switch to English misleads the audience into thinking that ragamuffins in Bombay can learn English (and adopt a British accent) as they grow. As another example, Salim points a revolver to Jamal’s head and threatens to shoot him with his ‘Colt revolver’. First of all, the last thing a teenager street bully would do is spell the brand of the revolver when issuing a threat. Secondly, after 5-6 years of such an incident, Jamal may well remember his brother’s chilling demeanor and the revolver, but definitely not the brand Salim invoked arbitrarily! On the other hand, Latika’s metamorphosis from a girl who actually looks like an urchin, into a sophisticated fashion-conscious damsel was uncalled for. Just because she is a gangster’s keep doesn’t mean she needs to look a million bucks. Her initial indifference when Jamal tracks her down is realistic but then she quickly bucks realism for Bollywood romance when she goes to the train station after a feeble entreaty by Jamal.

Finally, the editing of the movie and the general pace of the story-telling left a lot to be desired. It starts with a lot of promise but stumbles in the middle and falls flat in the end. The flashback style established at the start was a great tool to build up anticipation for every question and the sheer force of the initial story blocks (with great background music) sets the stage for an epic. To make Jamal’s triumph more pleasurable, I did wish they showed the related story immediately before he answered each question, instead of the other way round. Anyways, soon the story begins to flounder, some jarring moments creep in and the scenes look disconnected. Then, it ends with a whimper when the game-show host, after being developed as a villain, meekly lets the hero leave the scene of his victory (being watched live by millions) so that he may go and sulk incognito at a train station (instead of calling his brother’s cellphone that he knew Latika was carrying). To make up for a quiet finale, the duo incredulously break into a dance number on the train platform with a crowd of supporting cast in lockstep with them, as the credits start rolling. I like a dash of fervor and color, but not when it is splashed for its own sake.

The question is: what was on the mind of M/s Boyle & Beaufoy? In introducing new plot elements and ignoring some existing ones, what were they trying to achieve? This is a conundrum.

They obviously weren’t aiming for a happy-go-lucky crowd-pleaser that would move family audiences to tears. Or, they would’ve avoided some graphic scenes of Indian slums/police station as well as the scene where Mamon’s henchman blinds a small kid by using acid (not surprisingly, the movie is rated R in the US). At the same time, they eschewed hard-hitting by excluding some of the more mature sub-plots involving homosexuality and paedophilia. They introduced Jamal’s love interest much earlier in the story; in fact, she appears right after the riots that orphan the kids. They contrived a new sub-plot involving a call center and threw in a rambunctious Bollywood dance number at the end.

Perhaps realizing that the movie will be marketed to Western audiences in big cities and at film festivals, they have played to the gallery by weaving a story that includes all stereotypes about India that Western audiences nurture. These include poverty of slums, dizzying economic growth reflected in call centers & real estate boom, crime & corruption embodied by police and underworld, seediness of red-light areas, hunger-fueled improvisation on the train and at Taj Mahal and audacity inherent in fooling tourists and in reaching out to one’s beloved through a game-show. I have no problems with stereotypes as long as they remain secondary to the overall narrative and weave a story that may be funny or tragic or ‘Dickensian’, a term many critics have taken to in describing this movie. But, M/s Boyle & Beaufoy have let the opportunity pass for now, though they have still succeeding in entertaining many of us.

I secretly believe that they actually shot a longer movie (complete with all twists and turns and no jarring turns) but edited it to cater to the 120-minutes audience. Some day, they may release the ‘deleted scenes’ or the ‘director’s cut’ on a DVD. Until then, we have to be content with what we have been served. And what we have been served is khichdi, an Indian rice-based dish which is characterized by chaotic mingling of all sorts of ingredients. I can’t help remarking I’d have preferred pulav, a more refined dish that requires same ingredients but more precision and thought.


Written by serialbus

November 24, 2008 at 10:56 pm

9 Responses

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  1. I havent read your blog yet, but want to see the movie before coming to this blog.. I am fearing there are plot elements within the blog:)….


    November 25, 2008 at 8:08 pm

  2. Just back after seeing the movie, and am only now reading your post. Haven’t read the novel, but i did think there was quite a bit of discontinuity in the movie.

    Makes me want to read Q & A now.



    December 26, 2008 at 7:02 pm

  3. Saw Slumdog millionaire yesterday and then read ur post. I havent read the book yet and that could be why i found the movie amusing and brilliantly made. About certain mentions in your post
    a. life as taj-mahal tourist guide – i wonder if this was introduced to make the characters speak english when they grow up. I have seen kids who pose as tourist guides in such places with impeccable ability to speak enlgish with british/american accents.
    b. blind beggar knowing the $100 bill picture – my only lenghty personal experience with a blind person astonished me because he was so much into particulars/details about things that we tend to ignore. They seem to want to know more so that they dont get cheated/conned by people esp if they are living in harder conditions
    c. Ignoring plot elements – that shud be catering to the 120 min format. May be they did not want to prolong and make the movie predictable/one-dimensional, i.e. only about the show and each episode revolves around the questions…

    Like you said, the movie is thoroughly enjoyable.


    December 27, 2008 at 8:50 am

  4. Hi mr. bean counter..
    some details are best ignored.. esp when you talk about movie making.. and those movies that are adapted from a novel.
    Obviously a writer has the liberty to use 50 pages just to describe how a woman flips the pages of a book but when you make a movie – you’ve got to sacrifice such details.

    tu to baal ki khaal nikaal diya 😀 ;-D

    hows New York.. mr mojo?

    D B

    December 29, 2008 at 5:14 am

  5. I see your point Mo, I do…and I even agree that its not the best made movie yet.. but its definitely changing the direction of cinema that portrays India.
    It was a hard movie for me to watch and a hard blog post for me to read… the truth is, the truth hurts!


    January 5, 2009 at 10:54 pm

  6. You are one of the few people I know who actually read the book, Q&A! Thanks for the comparisons that shine even more light on how the movie failed in many regards story-wise.

    David H. Schleicher

    February 3, 2009 at 12:16 am

  7. Dude,
    Your criticism is valid for *any* movie based on a book. Movies IMHO are to be judged independently. Next time your wife makes “pulav” tell her that her pulav is not as good as your mom’s … and you know where you will be sleeping that night (or till you buy her some bling).

    The problem you have is you started out with extraordinary expectations and clearly they were not met. Comparing a movie to a book is futile. The purpose of pop movies is to entertain .. not educate.

    I liked your well written/expressed critique though.


    February 23, 2009 at 6:16 pm

  8. I didn’t like Slumdog a bit . Apart from denigrating the image of the country it has opened the floodgates for more India bashing . I can just imagine some foreigner shooting a film about how the Indian army has raped, killed and looted Kashmiris . Or how the North-Eastern states are yearning for independence and India is subjugating their quest for it .

    I don’t know how the Indian Govt. would respond but I take it that it would be great hit at a lot of film festivals .Going by the way the Indian government has tried to shine in reflected limelight of a worthless Oscar they’d just grin and bear it . They should have bristled at the stark description and at least tried to
    fix the congestion problems in Indian cities .


    March 1, 2009 at 10:13 am

  9. For me, a good movie comes down to good writing and persuasive acting. The movie had neither. Perhaps most disappointing was the lead actor who is so completely not a-tapori-from-the-streets. Perhaps the fact that there is no acting on his part is a result of the lines he was given. I also found his accent jarring in relation to the accents of the other actors, but that is probably just my problem.

    So why do Americans like this movie so much? Maybe because of their appetite for the rags-to-riches American Dream. As Ricky Gervais once said: in America every kid is told “You can be President one day,” but in Britain they are told “it won’t happen to you.”


    March 13, 2009 at 1:14 pm

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