Saturday, November 29, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire: A Rags to Rancid Tale

Slumdog Millionaire (2008), co-directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandon, fails to extricate itself from its own self-created "filmic ghetto" of stereotype and poor choices. Focusing on the story of Jamal Malik ( Dev Patel), a love-struck kid determined to shed his violent and tragic upbringing in Bombay slums, Slumdog Millionaire is a well-intentioned but ultimately failed attempt at social commentary. Running 2 hours and ten minutes, the film is rife with stereotypes, cliches and bromides that would make any Bombay-wallah cringe in dispair. Jamal's love interest is Latika (Freida Pinto), a hapless orphan whose presence offers nothing but predictability from her first appearance on screen.

Both Patel and Pinto struggle painstakingly through maudlin and fatuos lines of love, anticipation, and honour. Indeed the narrative, nothing short of hackneyed Bollywood-masala, forces this viewer to wonder why the filmmakers didn't just throw in a few song-and-dance numbers since they had the famed music director, A.R. Rahman, in their company.

The most jarring element of the film, however, lies in what amounts to an unfortunate decision by the filmmakers to ignore an integral component of Mumbai life - its language. Not only Jamal, but hoodlums, thugs, and minor characters speak an immaculate English, barring one Hindi expletive (matherchod - motherfucker). In fact, the language of the slums in Mumbai, Bambaiya Hindi, is a mix of Urdu, Hindi, and Marathi. If the filmmakers really wanted to speak to the needs of the people of Mumbai, they should have tried to stay true to these roots instead of trying to pander to a global audience. Pinto and several members of the Indian cast are obviously uncomfortable with the nuances of their feelings rendered in the English dialogue and they often mumble their lines in incoherent little sentences as if reading a teleprompter on their co-actors' eyes. Indeed, because many of the exchanges between Jamal and Latika are barely audible, the filmmakers should have redone entire conversations in ADR.

The uneven storytelling is not aided by the Dutch angles which seem more ostentatious than helpful to the construction of the film. The pretentiously hip music does not adequately convey the grim conditions of some of the worst slums in India. Foreigners became cardboard cutouts created for comic effect, while antagonists are instantly familiar because they are either wife-beaters or are swearing at women with foul language. Even veteran Bollywood star, Anil Kapoor, portrays Prem Kumar, the host of, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" with a healthy dose of histrionics and insincerity. The problems with language continue as Kapoor mumbles part of his lines in Hindi, an act which leaves the non-Hindi speaking audience clueless because the lines are not always followed by subtitles in English. Perhaps the only redeeming element of this mediocre and forgettable film is the soundtrack, which offers some innovative and entertaining lyrics.

One is left to wonder why such a problematic film received so many positive reviews from Hollywood-media critics. Is there an element of the "noble savage" in the way that Hollywood critics relax the standards for filmmakers who touch on South Asian themes or are they just being safe and politically correct in not identifying sloppy filmmaking for what it is? Do Hollywood movie critics have double standards for Hollywood-based films as compared to foreign films?

Slumdog Millionaire is a dog in Danny Boyle's oeuvre and barely deserves a B-movie grade. Prem Kumar's million-dollar question in the eponymous show to Jamal should have been: "Will this dud-of-a-movie pass the critics' muster...Are you sure?...Or would you like to go 50/50?"

No comments:

Post a Comment