It is written. But not very well, I’m afraid.

At the time of writing this, Slumdog has already won over audiences around the world, snagged a few Golden Globes (and other awards besides) and is widely expected to take home some statuettes on Oscar night. And I’m happy for the cast and crew who made it this far. I really am. But here’s what I cannot get around:

The movie simply did not work for me.

There’s enough to like, believe me. The movie is beautifully structured, the concept is interesting, the performances are quite good, the camerawork is amazing… But at the end of the day, I did not feel emotionally attached to this tale of a ragamuffin from Mumbai surviving a baptism in shit, communal riots, a brother’s betrayal and numerous other setbacks to find love and 20 million rupees in the end.

A big part of that is the writing. Sample this exchange between Jamal and Latika right at the end:

Jamal: I knew you’d be watching.

Latika: I thought we would meet only in death.

Jamal: This is our destiny.

Latika: Kiss me.

If the structuring of the story and the concept are interesting enough to warrant an Oscar nomination, then tripe like the above should warrant a Razzie nomination as well. I agree that dramatic lines like this are an integral part of our own films, but the good ones learn to do it with a modicum of panache. For a movie that’s been feted all over the place, it’s surprising how pedestrian the dialogue is. When Salim tells his brother, “The man with the Colt45 says ‘Shut up!'”, I wanted to barf.

The sad part is, the performances are pretty good but are hamstrung by the dialogue. The kids who play the younger and adolescent Jamal, Salim and Latika are fantastic. Dev Patel is quite good as the older Jamal — I was initially apprehensive about his accent being a distraction, but he managed to hold my attention despite that. The actors who play Salim do a pretty good job. Frieda Pinto looks like a million bucks, but has little to do. She does adequately. Anil Kapoor is suitably supercilious — I doubt a real game show host would be this condescending on live TV, but he makes it work. Irrfan Khan is his usual dependable self.

Three of the Oscar nominations have gone to A. R. Rahman. This is genuinely puzzling, because I can’t think of a single good thing to say about the music. The celebrated Jai Ho is earth-shatteringly nondescript. I sat there listening to the song and thinking, “They love him for this?”

Rahman’s music has brightened my days for the better part of two decades now. But he’s done much better than this. Then again, sometimes the Oscars are about granting overdue recognition. If Judi Dench could win for Shakespeare in Love, then our man certainly deserves a statuette for this score.

Let me leave you with a question that has been on my mind since yesterday. I don’t think the things I have spoken of in this review add up to why the movie didn’t work for me. There was something else missing, maybe a sense of wonder, of seeing something I hadn’t seen before. Is it that I have become desensitized to the poverty I see around me? Would I have loved this movie if it was set in, say, Brazil instead?

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20 thoughts on “It is written. But not very well, I’m afraid.

  1. Yes, I guess that is true to some extent. As far as ‘realistic’ cinema goes, I too find myself more ready to accept and admire films that are set in places I do not really know. Perhaps knowing and being too much part of a particular context, one does tend to be more critical of lapses.

    Anyway, I have yet to see the film.

  2. Banno>> You may be right about that. Our experience of Slumdog is probably biased by our knowledge of the context.

    It’s a bit like me getting riled everytime someone attempts a “Tamilian” accent in a Hindi film. Somedays, I tell you, I feel like strangling Mehmood for his act in Padosan.

    ~r

  3. To be honest, I think one of the things I loved about it was that I felt I was in India for a couple of hours. I really liked the story too—for me the romance didn’t feel very realistic, but it didn’t need to since I also thought of it as a metaphor for Dev’s dreams of escaping the life he was born into. It was a catalyst rather than a reason. If that makes sense.

  4. Hey, I am glad to see someone shares my rather underwhelming opinion about the movie! Guess, I didnt like it in part because it doesnt (and lets face it, nothing can) stand up to the chorus of praises showered on it. But my real disappointment with it was that for a masala movie it isnt spicy enough, and for “realistic” cinema, apart from touches here and there (the torture is frighteningly real), its about as realistic as pigs with wings (can you imagine a shit-covered kid being allowed within miles of Big B?)! Would I have found it more interesting if it had been set in Brazil? Sure. Its easier to accept fantastic things happening in a “foreign” land than in ones own country, simply because one knows the realities of one’s own land.

  5. Memsaab>> Your interpretation makes a lot of sense, actually. It adds a lot more coherence to the plot. However, I am not entirely sure it’s how Messrs Boyle, Beaufoy or Swarup (from whose novel Q&A this is adapted) saw it.

    I think I’d have loved it a lot more if he had just expressed a dogged determination to find her without spouting off about destiny every so often. They make such a cute couple, it would’ve been a joy to see them making out without assorted Gods milling around in the neighbourhood with beatific smiles on their faces 😀

    bollyviewer>> Yeah, that’s one of my problems with it. An unapologetic masala movie would’ve been nice, actually. Somehow, it feels like Boyle wanted to go for that, but this is as far as he got.

    Memsaab, maybe you should sit him down and explain what exactly a good masala movie should feel like 🙂

    The shit scene is the only one where I felt like the movie actually got a bit exploitative. If I remember, Boyle did something like this in Trainspotting as well. Talk about being scatologically obsessed 🙂

    You know, I wonder how the movie would’ve turned out, had Dibakar Bannerjee (of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!) had made it. Wouldn’t have made it to the Oscars, that’s for damn sure. But I think I would’ve liked that movie.

    ~r

  6. At this point I’d like to draw a parallel with the current anime (animation from Japan) atmosphere in India. There’s one faction, myself included, who believe that anime should be seen only in Japanese (the language in which it is made), albeit with English subtitles aka ‘subbed’ and there’s another bunch who find it watchable only in English aka ‘dubbed’. I personally believe that anime (or anything for that matter) should be viewed in the language it was originally made in.

    Having said that, I think I can understand your gripes about the movie at a certain level. At critical phases, Slumdog Millionaire came across as an irksome English dub; an authentic Hindi fare would’ve worked much better. Specific examples like the ones you pointed out were – for me – the cinematic equivalent of watching say, Amelie in English (*gasp*) or Glengarry Glen Ross (*shudder*) in Hindi.

    What I’m trying to point out is, perhaps SDM wanted to be an all out English-dialogue film about India, but somewhere along the line it inevitably became a victim of Indian sensibilities. And the first segment in Hindi certainly didn’t help things.

    But I think that’s where the movie walks on a fine line. In my case, the other aspects – cinematography, direction et al. – more than sufficiently overshadowed the obvious snag in writing. It’s a pity that the writing ruined it a bit for you.

    PS: Sorry if I digressed too much. Oh, and NO, I did not watch Amelie in English or GGR in Hindi. 😀

  7. Pradeep,

    The setting was a big part of it. I watch movies set in other non-English speaking countries where the principal characters speak in heavily accented English, and it works for me.

    But the thing is, I might’ve been able to overlook the language issue, had the dialogue been interesting enough. The dialogue here seemed too plastic — it took away any empathy I might’ve felt for the characters.

    ~r

  8. DC says:

    The mention of “beatific” makes me wonder if our shared gripe about that flatness of writing in (especially) those Destiny dialogues can only be resolved (in movies to come) by God Himself, in the sense that perhaps a “reworking” of the Gospel of Matthew along the lines of “The Good Screen-Writer Shall Inherit the Earth” is in order. 🙂

  9. bawa says:

    I loved it, despite the hype from memsaab, which didn’t spoil it at all for me.
    A lot of people seem to be comparing it to either hindi masala (which I can hardly stand) or realistic cinema.
    I just saw it as a film that told a story, and told in a way that was paced, edited, photgraphed beautifully.
    As for the music, I love the soundtrack. I cannot understand the gripe about it. I love Rahman’s work, right from Roja days, and I thought he brilliantly produced the songs required for the scenes, right from Ringo-ringo, to the gangsta blues and the Jai Ho at the end.
    Not everyone has to think the same, and just to let you know that myself, as a fan of Rahman (and K L Saigal, Noor Jehan, Naushad, S D Burman, etc etc) just loved the score

    End note: was watching coverage of reactions to it in India, and so many well-off people had all these issues with it, and all the poorer crowd, including many defining themselves as slum-dwellers, were delighted with it.
    I guess that says something about what Danny Boyle has achieved :))

  10. Rajendran says:

    The film worked for me in bits and pieces. I liked the children much better than the 3 adults. The scene when young Jamal descends from the roof of the train to steal a roti shook me. Picturisation was fantastic but dialogues were thin. Background score was good but the songs themselves were rather sad.

    I don’t agree with the rant of the likes of Mr.Bacchan. If folks believe that the Karan Johar brand of NRI films showcase India, I must ask them to step out of their cars and spend sometime smelling the musty air of slums dumped in their backyard. I liked the spirit of achievement in the film but I didn’t like the method of doing so.

    The whole mechanism of becoming a millionnaire with no effort has been creating this vacuous fantasy in the Indian lower middle class. A rather sad reality of post-liberal India. What I disliked most was that this mechanism was endorsed and celebrated in the film. The grime and poverty were left to be viewed from a distance through flashbacks in the film and not as an active story unfolding and what resonates later is the disturbing presentation of obtaining richness used as a metaphor for success. Well, this was done with utter seriousness and not as a farce. Which is why, I had trouble with it.

  11. bawa>> It looks like a whole lot of people enjoyed it. And if the opinions of the various guilds that serve as a prelude to the Oscars are any indication, the movie will win big on Oscar night.

    Raj>> I don’t think either Karan Johar or Danny Boyle are trying to do more than tell a story. All this social commentary nonsense is just so much intellectual wanking — as is this blog, for that matter :-D.

    Trouble is, even as a simple story, I didn’t find it as well told as many others did. Ah well, I guess I can’t go through life loving every acclaimed movie I come across 🙂

    ~r

  12. Shankar says:

    Hi Ramsu, I watched SM over the weekend here and share a lot of the views you have expressed. When I look back, the movie did work in bits and pieces…some aspects like camera work and music were nice whereas the dialogues, as you point out, were quite ordinary.

    As I was watching the movie, I heard Oohs and Aaahs and also saw people sobbing…the movie does affect the American public by its starkness. However it didn’t seem to have the same effect on me. This could be because we, as in Indians, are quite immune to poverty, violence etc having seen it at close quarters all our life (not that it doesn’t bother us!). We are shown images of these events almost everyday on our newscasts (there really should be a censor for primetime news…that’s another gripe though!) which even kids watch. I also felt, barring couple of scenes (Irfan finally accepting Dev’s story and people in the street recognizing and exhorting Dev on his way to the contest), the movie didn’t reflect enough on Mumbai’s character, humanity and resolve. There could have been a better balance.

    Having grown up on our masala movies and seeing it from our context, this felt just like another masala movie…many of the scenes did seem familiar from our own movies, police torture (innumerable Indian films), brothel scenes (Mahanadhi), gangster scenes (RGV films) etc.

    Having said all that, does the movie deserve its nominations and awards? I don’t know, but I’m happy that Rahman is getting his due recognition in the West (even if he doesn’t really need the validation) via this film, even if his score is not comparable to some of his other works.

    This movie’s success at the awards and box office is almost like the story of this film…a small film ($15 Mil budget), which faced enormous financial and logistical obstacles while getting made, which faced a direct-to-DVD scenario when it’s studio shut shop, has now emerged triumphant…isn’t that what Dev does in the film? 🙂

    I guess that’s what people like to see…

  13. You know, I kept thinking about whether or not Slumdog deserves all those Oscar nominations. I mean, when I think about movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture, most of them are movies I really admire.

    But then, all it is, at the end of the day, is a majority vote for a movie that a number of Americans in the film industry admire. If at all there’s an audience whose vote counts in some implicit manner, it would be the American audience. Given how Slumdog seems to have won over audiences in the West, I suppose it is reasonable to say that it deserves every nomination it’s got.

    I see the movie, and I see something that could’ve worked for me, but didn’t. For my money, if I had to pick a 2008 movie set in India about someone from the slums finding love and a lot of money, it would be Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!. Now that is a work of genius.

    ~ramsu

  14. What shocked me was my mom’s wholehearted acceptance of the film. She hates movies (unless they’ve got Sanjeev Kumar in em) as a general rule and I cannot remember the last time she actually *liked* one! So when she was all Slumdog wow really good yayaya I was like Et Tu? Now I really don’t want to see it :-p

    As for Rahman, I heard Ringa Ringa on NPR (Chicago Public Radio) of all things and it was HORRENDOUS. Utter bullshit. I love Rahman but if Ringa Ringa is ‘good music’ I don’t even want to hear the rest of the soundtrack :-p And it’s not like he has consistently hit out of the balpark- he does have a few horrid numbers to his credit.

  15. True, he does have a few very mediocre numbers to his credit, and it’s sad that one of them seems to be hogging all the Oscar glory. Like I said, if Judi Dench could win for Shakespeare in Love just because they overlooked her in Mrs. Brown the previous year, then Rahman can take this one!

    A friend and I had this discussion yesterday and he said something interesting: even though he does produce a few bloopers like this one, he manages to hit a couple out of the park every year, and that hasn’t changed.

    For me, this year it’s Masakkali. I think if Mohit Chauhan had been hit by a truck on the way out of the recording studio, he’d have died with a smile on his face.

    ~ramsu

  16. Meera says:

    Finally my comment on SM. Well, irrespective of our views it worked well enough for the Academy jury 🙂 It was not as entertaining as a drama (its emotions were superficial, except for Jamal’s mother’s look when she sees her children playing, and again the horror with the Hindu activists come running at them) It was not comical enough for a comedy (children being blinded in a comedy? Or a girl being slashed with a knife?) So it was a mish-mash. Exactly the way firangs view India. So it worked for ’em and their Academy. Will it win the filmfare, had it been directed by an Indian? No. Not the National Award either.

    Umm, in its defence? Its a dream-cum-true. Exactly what we need in times of recession. Hope. Belief. Fairy tales.

  17. Clearly, it worked much better for the jury and for audiences worldwide than it did for us. You’re right — it’s unlikely to win a Filmfare award. Then again, Raja Hindustani won Filmfare awards so hey…

    I guess we take the depiction of India as a given and look at the rest, whereas audiences outside India are bowled over by the depiction, to the extent that the flaws we see don’t occur to them as important.

    I am happy that it won a clutch of Oscars (and that ARR won two of them), but I would’ve been happier if I had loved the movie and its soundtrack.

    ~ramsu

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