Warning: Spoiler alert
Blame it on the hype.
The reviews -- mainly from the United Kingdom and the United States, where the film was released first -- for Slumdog Millionaire compete with each other in discovering superlatives. It is being billed as the movie of the year gone by, and has catapulted its protagonists Dev Patel and Freida Pinto into competing with Oscar heavyweights in major award nominations.
So expectation is par for the course, I hope you will agree.
But after watching director Danny Boyle's attempt at encapsulating the India story with a miraculous tale, I for one was majorly under-whelmed.
Let me try to explain why.
And for those of you who want to watch the movie first unencumbered by premature knowledge of plot turning points, please click away to another page, because it is impossible to critique this particular film without giving away what classify as 'spoilers'.
So where was I? The film. Do you remember a recent movie that had the tagline -- 'he was arrested for raping his daughter'? Well, Under-trial too was based on 'real events'.
The point I am trying to make is that a film about real events need not end up real enough, or engaging enough. That is precisely what Slumdog Millionaire suffers from, IMHO.
The premise is brimming with potential. A slum kid rises above fate to win Kaun Banega Crorepati -- the sets are ditto, as is the background music for the show -- and the love of his life. He is helped by destiny, as each of the questions on the quiz show is linked to an event in his life. Wow.
But the execution falls very flat because of two basic flaws: The language barrier, and a wishy washy story line.
It starts off with Jamal Malik being given the 'third degree' in a police station because the cops are sure the slum kid has cheated on the game show.
I agree custodial torture is not limited to Abu Ghraib. But what is not taken into account is the usual fall guy in 21st century India -- the media. If a 'slumdog' -- as the police inspector (Irrfan Khan) calls Jamal -- were to be poised to win Rs 20 million on KBC and if the country knew it (as it does in Slumdog), I doubt he would be subjected to any other grilling apart from that most profound of television journalism questions: "Aapko kaisa lag raha hai?" (How are you feeling?).
And if he was arrested for cheating, it would be an even bigger story, with reporters grilling the police and PYTs (pretty young things) doing PTCs (piece to cameras, the bit where the reporter faces the camera and signs off with usually insights like: 'What will happen next remains to be seen. With cameraperson in Mumbai, , ') in front of Jamal's slum.
Instead, Jamal narrates to the police inspector just how he knows the answer to each question.
So we flashback to him as child diving into potty -- isn't once enough, given that Boyle's gritty and edgy Trainspotting featured such a nauseating scene too? -- to get Amitabh Bachchan's autograph.
For all the Amitabh-crazed fans, maybe the megastar does oblige children caked in faeces; be sure to try it the next time.
More such flashbacks reveal the scars life has inflicted on Jamal and his brother Salim. The Bombay riots that orphaned Jamal; how he and his brother Salim met Latika, the love of Jamal's life, as children; the underworld don who has children's eyes gouged out so that they can earn more as beggars; how Jamal and Salim escape him and land up in Agra; how they come back; how Jamal and Salim and Latika are thrown apart; and how, eventually, love conquers all.
Again, fantastic -- and seemingly real -- premise; but shoddy experience.
For starters, the kids (who deliver heart-warming performances, faring way better than those who play their adult avatars) and his brother speak in Hindi, and suddenly when they turn adolescent they start talking in pucca English. Huh?
Arre, that's because the film is meant for a world audience, and you can't have an entire film in subtitles, you might say. Fine, but then why do the police officers have to speak 'Indian' English and why does the 'slumdog' have an accent?
And no, a semi-literate office help in a call centre does not develop an accent.
In fact, a lot of the 'how he knows the answers' flashbacks are too contrived. Sample this, Jamal knows Samuel Colt invented the revolver because Salim got a gun -- it is never explained how -- and shot dead the vile man who heads the beggars' racket. In my hometown, the pistol goes by monikers like 'machine' in the netherworld; I doubt the average underaged Mumbai underworld operative knows a Colt 45, or Samuel Colt. The first gun is usually what is called a 'country' revolver.
And then there is the stereotyped, half-baked, black and white characterisation, almost bar none. For example, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), the KBC host, is the typical villain who taunts the chaiwallah on his show; and the audience joins in with jeering laughter. Agreed, slum children get life's rawest deal, but not on live television. More likely, sugary treatment on the show, and bitter backstage.
It is also not explained just why Prem goes after Jamal with such malice, beyond a muttered 'It's my show'.
I can go on and on -- like point out that call centres serving customers in Scotland don't keep telephone directories of Indian cities accessible at the click of a button, and that mobile phones are not listed in telephone directories yet (that's how Jamal finds his brother again) -- but the point is that Slumdog Millionaire is miles short of what I had expected it to be.
The really key events, the struggles of survival, are glossed over, and instead we get montage (albeit beautiful) shots hurrying towards a climax that leaves you untouched. A R Rahman's music is good, but not the master's best. But then, maybe on second hearing it will grow on you.
But -- maybe it's just me -- you never really feel for the adult Jamal. Maybe it has something to do with the acting.
I have no problems with the 'West' taking up themes of poverty and highlighting the real India. I can completely understand a foreigner being obsessed with the filth and the poverty -- I too was stunned by the plight of the homeless in New York -- of India. I thought Slumdog is brilliantly shot, and I am willing to forgive Ram dressed as a mix between Shiva and Krishna in a foreign film.
But I do have a problem with a story that pretends to be real when in reality it is just a masala film -- the kind we churn out by the dozens in Bollywood.
Yes, Slumdog Millionaire is just superficial fluff, mainly because of its gaping plot holes. It should have been much better researched, and they really should have stuck to one language.
Maybe the makers -- and half the world, apparently -- believe they have married Bollywood escapism with Western sensibilities, but it is not a match made in cinema heaven. It is more along the lines of 1970s Bollywood tear-jerkers, the kind where the hero transforms from street urchin to gang lord in one running shot and where long-lost brothers are reunited by tattoos.
Blame it on the hype.