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Home > General > Shining India/Mumbai: Through the Prism of Slumdog Millionaire

Shining India/Mumbai: Through the Prism of Slumdog Millionaire

by Sukla Sen, 11 March 2009

print version of this article print version, February 19 2008

This is a review of a popular film, ’Slumdog Millionaire’, on the grim “realities” of slum life in Bombay/Mumbai in the Rising/Shining India, which would eventually bag eight Oscar awards apart from a few other. This is a "foreign" film by a "foreign" director with virtually all Indian actors and actresses. And of course the site is India.

Goaded by all the hype and hoopla, made the necessary efforts and spent the money to watch the movie in a well-provided multiplex.
I was not too impressed. Had the expectations been pitched at a lower level, to begin with, maybe the judgement would have been somewhat less adverse.

In any case, no film buff that I am, to me the film operates essentially at three levels.

One, the core story, around which the film is wound, is too simple a love story, in the rather typical Bollywood mould – part fantasy, part real-like. And of course with wish-fulfilling end. There is also not-so-unusual bit of fraternal love, loyalty and tensions. Even a quasi-honest police inspector and a comical, although habitually sadist, constable. The main female character, by the way, is pretty much peripheral. It’s almost all-male affair.
The technical aspects – cinematography and effect sounds in particular – I’d imagine, are pretty strong. So is Anil Kapoor’s acting – the TV show anchor. And also that of Javed Bhai.

Two, it uses the backdrop of Bombay slums as a prop, which provides elements of gory brutalities and shocking sordidness to add special zing to the otherwise rather commonplace storyline. It is mostly outdoor/location shooting. To that extent it cannot but be "real". But this "realism" is only a part of the commercial package. It does not belong to the genre of "realist" films. The two realist films that come to my mind in this context are: ’Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro’ and ’Split Wide Open’. The two are quite different between themselves. The former one is clearly driven by not-so-concealed Left ideology. The latter has no such moorings. But then both, the latter more so as freed of any explicit ideology, focused on bringing out the "realities" of Bombay, rather a particular slice of it – of course as seen and perceived through the director’s lenses. There is nothing like pure "reality". The second one deals with urbanisation of Bombay. I vaguely remember ’Chakra’ had dealt with the underbelly of Central suburbs (Kalyan?). But here the tremendous prolonged "action" shot showing boys in their pre-teens desperately and yet defiantly fleeing from menacingly chasing policemen, with all the trappings of "realism", essentially adds to the commercial attraction of the film. Hardly goes anywhere beyond. Not even the scenes of custodial "interrogation".

The first and second elements are tightly intertwined. But as the film progresses, beyond a point, the gory "realism" starts losing its sting and the fairytale element, even if not so beautiful, more and more dominates.
Even then the "reality" prop comes as a solid thud in the face of "Shining (Secular/Democratic) India". More so as it is (going to be) a successful commercial film with some considerable credibility - prestigious awards under the belt, also with international viewership.

The film, as it appears, operates on a third level too. Though not being talked of. It makes fun, sort of caricature, of the Bollywood culture. The closing dance sequence on the "VT" (railway) platform, out of the blue, brings that out. And is further driven home by the obviously gaudy calligraphy of the credit/casting slides that closely follow. In a way, brings ’Bollywood/ Hollywood,’ to mind. And that’s how the director demonstratively distances himself from the otherwise looked down upon Bollywood style plot that he has elected to adopt for the given occasion, albeit with the spice of (Hollywood-style) "realism" in a large measure sprinkled into it. With also a strong measure of disaster tourism thrown in.