Saturday, March 7, 2009
Slumdog Millionaire – Piss and Tell
I like Danny Boyle as a director, from Trainspotting on. He handles colour and crowd movement brilliantly. He also has a gift for managing the sordid so that it hurts and yet there is no overly glossy dramatising that you get in most American gangster films, for example. And he shocks in ways that audiences pay for. A bit visceral. Always pushing the plot on. He also seems a nice bloke, judging by the interview at the wonderfully conceived (by Mark Kermode) world premier of his ‘lost’ film, Alien Love Triangle in a twenty odd seat cinema behind a suburban house in Wales, which made my tears well.
Therefore, with the hype of all those awards woodpeckering about my ears and a personal interest in India – I was born there and have been back – I settled down for the film, Slumdog Millionaire. When it finished I expect I had a screwed up look of bemusement on my face. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it. It was engaging enough: the picaresque journey of two uneducated brothers to early adulthood, one through crime and the other through petty crime and, finally, winning Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It also contained the oldest narrative line of girl lost, girl found, girl lost again, girl found for good, twining around the tales of maturation.
It wasn’t great in its humour – the scene of the uneducated boy scamming a foreign couple about the history behind the Taj Mahal was too corny to be funny – and the recurring TV clips of him in the Who Wants to Be A Millionaire show somehow lacked laughs and dramatic tension. As well as this, it missed out on the drive and fury of the ensemble playing of, say, City of God, which managed the coup of depicting the desperate plight of those in favellas while respecting without endorsing their complex, sometimes utterly despicable behaviour.
Then there is the Indian thing in me. Or is it the general business of portraying poverty? For example I dislike nearly all films whose plots have white stars against the backdrop of black faces. I didn’t really enter Slumdog empathetically. What always strikes me as a western non-tourist walking through slums, is the mixed feelings of guilt at being, relatively, so well off and that strange desire to observe and store up experiences for recounting. Piss and tell. Something in me both wants to do something to help change matters and something else remains detached and objective, as though, when I come to depict events, I’ll be able to describe them for maximum effect. I refuse to be overcome by emotion, regardless of the knives of empathy in my insides.
By the end of the film, I felt that it was hardly a specifically Indian experience, despite the Hindi and despite the child blindings. Dickens did this kind of plot much better. Even the Bollywood ensemble sequence in the railway station at the end borrowed heavily from Zatoichi, where the samurai plot finishes, bizarrely, with the flourish of a tap dance.
I am sorry it’s not a more analytical review. Why am I so concerned about authenticity when I don’t apply this criterion to every film I see? Everything has its context and the film I saw prior to Slumdog was The Class (Entre les Murs), a year in the life of a multi-ethnic mixed ability class and its teacher in a slum of Paris. It was riveting and set up so many complex debates about poverty, race, culture and what can be acceptable in context, that maybe my mind was still trying to unscramble it, days later – when I sat down to Danny Boyle, where everything appeared a mite too cinematically glib.