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Slumdog Millionaire

The trick (for me) in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was to spot the join in the fusion of author Vikas Swarup’s idea of India and director Danny Boyle’s idea of India. You’d think, wouldn’t you?, that the gap between the two would have been pretty wide. After all, how could Danny Boyle (a guy from Manchester) know India in the way that Swarup does?

Fact is, though, it’s amazing how Indian the Film feels. It’s not just that the boys speak in Hindi (with sub-titles) in the movie, or that there is a funny, imaginary Bollywood-style dance sequence at the end (the first real reference to Bollywood), but that Danny Boyle seems to have picked up, somehow, an empathy for the country he is depicting.

Maybe I’m over-stating it, but think how Slumdog echoes the attitudes in films in the present Indian Film Industry. Plots in films like say, Chak De, or Black, are sophisticated without being deep, and also build through setbacks to the ultimate feel-good catharsis. So does Slumdog.

Also, Boyle doesn’t make the big mistake that most Westerners do, about Mumbai, and Dharavi especially, of seeing poverty as meaning degradation. Most Mumbaikers I know (outside those in Government service, who just seem depressed most of the time!) are too busy trying to come up with the next Great Idea To Make Money to be wallowing in despair.

And Boyle also gets beauty right; there is so much beauty in children, in women, and even in men. This is not being patronising – this is a fact of Mumbai. Yep, the place has decay in its bones, but life is vigorous.
The train sequences are genius too. Somehow Danny Boyle seems to have instinctively realised that trains are a centre-point of existence in Mumbai… he just gets it! They are a public arena, where everything human takes place; they are sort-of like mobile public squares into which we all wander, and sit, and chat, an d eat, and sleep.

So, is it a film I recommend? Yes, I do, wholeheartedly.
Okay, it’s not very profound, there are no life-changing moral insights, and there are some scenes which are lack truthfulness even for fiction (I just don’t believe any Americans are as stupid as the ones in the Taj Mahal sequences, which makes the scenes an easy pop at America – it’s just for very cheap laughs I think) – but… for the fact that it will make the real India accessible to western audiences, I applaud it.


So, off-line, were there are any other aspects which just caught my eye?

Yes (bet you guessed there would be, huh?).

* Muslim Mumbai. What a lot of Western audiences won’t get is that Jamal and Salim, the two brothers, are Muslim in what is a predominantly Hindu city. Muslims make up a sizeable minority In Mumbai, and do well on many business and career levels, but, the bottom–line is that they are very often the poorest and most discriminated against in the city. In fact, one of the first scenes in the movie shows the tiny brothers’ parents being slaughtered in anti-Muslim riots – I would guess (I haven’t read Swarup’s book) that this is the pogrom of 1992, in which nearly a thousand Muslims died.
But this theme – a Muslim in Mumbai – fades away as the film progresses (though Salim’s last words are those a Muslim should say - ‘God is great’). I guess Boyle/Swarup does that deliberately… but I did wonder why it became under-played.

* The Taj Mahal. The two tiny brothers wander India on trains before ending up at the end of the tourist trail in Agra.
I just want to say as the two beggar boys cry out in wonder on seeing the TM for the first time there in front of them – is this Heaven?!! – that I identified with them completely at that moment. The Taj is a staggering, staggering place; and I feel sorry for Indians who get so used to it.
As a foreigner I have never become used to it. It is … Heaven.

* The actors. Well Dev Patel is fine, but I kinda forgot how good Anil Kapoor is. I have gotten used to seeing him in rather B-grade stuff, but as the quiz-show host he is great, and even outshines the always exemplary Irfan Khan.
Indians can never quite believe me when I tell them that the Indian film industry is almost totally ignored by Westerners – you’re more likely to see a Mexican or Japanese film at your local cinema/film-theatre in the US or France than an Indian one.

Now, I know a lot of this is to do with the length. A Western audience is not going to sit through three hours; they just won’t. But it’s a source of great frustration to me. How can I explain the fact that a fine and moving film like, say, Maqbool/Macbeth, is just not going to get exposure, even in an arthouse theatre, in the UK?
Trouble is, the English non-Asian audience still thinks Bollywood is wet saris in Switzerland, and won't take it seriously.
Slumdog is the nearest they are going to get to an 'Indian' movie – which is both heartening and depressing at the same time.

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Slumdog Millionaire


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