Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Directors: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan

Panner.JPGA Ferdy on Films Pan

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By Roderick Heath

I remember when I thought Danny Boyle was a talent to watch. His terrific one-two punch, Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1995), were grotty, intense, biting black comedies that ransacked the smugness of Thatcher-and-after Britain’s bourgeois and hipster cultures with equal abandon. Boyle’s filmmaking was a series of tricks that didn’t always work, but remained grounded and purposeful. I soon came to the conclusion, however, that Boyle had no actual artistic centre or sense of narrative gravity: subsequent films like A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, and 28 Days Later, were clumsily assembled, laden with sophistry, and overedited in a feeble attempt to seem with it, with no feel for storytelling or depth in character. In short, Boyle became a fair paragon of the modern effect-über-alles filmmaker. Finally, the excruciating pretentiousness and visual gibberish of Sunshine made me decide Boyle was a flash in the pan.

And then came the Oscar-laden triumph of Slumdog Millionaire. Gasp! Was I wrong? Had Boyle found his mojo again?

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No. Slumdog Millionaire’s hyped-up, stylistic bravura is technically impressive, aided by all the technical whiz-bangery of contemporary filmmaking, from floor-shaking sound effects to lightning edits, but it’s also painfully derivative of Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002) in its style of shooting urban poverty, and crusted with more visual gibberish, like ultra-close-ups of feet running and sundry other shots serve only to try to batter the consciousness into submission. What lies beneath all the effort of Slumdog Millionaire? A pile of clichés and gimmicks to rival Mt. Everest. Even the final dance number, an overt tribute to Bollywood, is a shoddy, under-choreographed disappointment.

Slumdog Millionaire has a wraparound frame that is quite clever, after a fashion. Jamal Malik (played, as a grown-up, by Dev Patel) is a “chai-wallah” (tea-boy and general dogsbody) in a Mumbai call centre. He gets onto the Indian edition of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which is hosted by Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), a self-impressed rags-to-riches media mogul. Kumar mocks Jamal for the audiences benefit, beginning what is the film’s break-glass-in-case-of-emergency method of developing sympathy: delivering endless humiliations and abuse entirely for that end. The time-hopping structure drags us forward first to Jamal being tortured by the police for allegedly cheating on the show during the one-night break between episodes when he’s waiting for the last question (that’s odd—at least on Aussie TV—which would have extended the episode). Because he’s a “slumdog,” a child of the streets, no one believes that he could have gotten as far as he did when well-educated people never do. The cops decide to lay off giving him shocks with a car battery and listen to his story, in which he explains, question by question (allowing for flashbacks in perfect chronological order), how he learnt the answers.

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His tale is revealed: Jamal and brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) were orphaned after Jamal’s mother, a Muslim, was killed in a religious riot. Surviving on their own, they were joined by another orphan, a girl named Latika, as a “third musketeer,” as per the book they started, but did not finish, reading in school: the running gag, and of course, the final question, involves the name of the third musketeer, which Jamal never learnt. The trio survived various Dickensian dangers, like evil gangster, Maman (Ankur Vikal) who liked to burn kids’ eyes out with acid because blind singers make the most money. The boys escaped, but Latika was left behind. The lads rode trains and finished up in New Delhi, where, for a time, they guided tourists about the Taj Mahal. As teenagers, they returned to Mumbai so Jamal could look for Latika. When he found she was still being kept by Maman, who was preparing to sell her virginity, he and Salim tried to snatch her away. When Maman walked in on their rescue effort, Salim shot Maman, an act that placed him in good stead with the biggest gangster in town. Salim, flush with booze and macho triumph, chased Jamal away and claimed Latika for himself.

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That’s a plot arc at least as old as Angels with Dirty Faces: the dynamic duo of the slums, one of whom goes good and the other of whom goes bad, a girl who is a mutual object of desire optional. Slumdog is raw, unleavened melodrama; Salman Rushdie’s description of Vikas Swarup’s source novel as a potboiler is pretty damn accurate of the film. Characters are laid out in single dimensions, altered on whim when the filmmakers want to further their manipulation—particularly with Salim’s violent changes in character, but also with the police inspector interviewing Jamal (Irrfan Khan), and the slimy host Kumar, who proves to be villainous for no particular reason other than to give Jamal yet another hurdle. The heroes are no more well drawn. Jamal is plucky, quick-witted, doe-eyed. Latika grows to become a prisoner-princess in the walled castle of a boss gangster, from which Jamal wants to spring her. When she does venture out to meet Jamal, Salim and other thugs swiftly descend to snatch her up, and cut her face as a punishment. Despite sporting this mark, the ganglord still keeps her as a member of his personal harem. Both she and Jamal are remarkably well-scrubbed, pretty, and psychologically healthy despite all the shit they go through.

The appeal of his familiar stuff may simply be that it’s been grafted onto a location relatively fresh to Western audiences. We’ll swallow these horse pills of cornball if they’re coated in sufficiently wretched and violent a gloss to leaven the fantasy. One sequence, where the young Jamal has to escape from a toilet where he’s been mischievously locked by Salim if he wants a chance to get his favourite movie star’s autograph, requires him to leap into the cesspit—a straight riff on Trainspotting’s “worst toilet in Scotland.” Slumdog plays on both an audience’s love of seeing suffering children win through and middle-class guilt on the level of “My god! Those goons I can’t understand when I’m trying to complain about my phone service are people, too!” The film takes care to not blame the tourists who drift through the landscape: in a scene that makes no sense, one couple listens to Jamal’s bullshit history of the Taj Mahal; another pair pays him off “like real Americans” and save him from a beating. There’s no political dimension to the film: there’s poor people, rich people, villains, and nice folk. Questions of post-Imperialism and globalisation are elided through jokes, like Jamal’s calamitous effort to man a call centre post with a woman from Scotland.

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All these faults might have been forgiven, but Slumdog, rather than striking me as an authentic Capra-esque fantasy, is just a compendium of canards to several brands of contemporary moviemaking: Tarantino/Tykwer-ish freaks of fate and pop-culture associations; Meirelles-esque kaleidoscopic editing and multimedia shooting styles; plot tropes and narrative gimmicks stolen from any Hollywood feel-good flick you care to mention; shallow Bollywood referencing. In the finale, when Latika’s racing to reach the TV station (isn’t that the sort of cliché that’s already been relentlessly mutilated by satirists?) whilst Salim lies in wait to shoot their owner, sitting in a bathtub filled with money, a touch that’s absurd and purely for photogenic value. For all its patina of gritty realism, Slumdog is pop moviemaking.

MIA’s “Paper Planes,” which features on the soundtrack, is becoming the new age anthem for the spirit of the post-Bush international Left—a cheeky song that uses sound effects to tell the tale of a poor immigrant who occasionally feels like shooting people and stealing their money. Slumdog, however, never actually gives Jamal any of the nobility of contemplated rebellion. He never fights back, takes every beating, lets Salim chase him off, and needs his best friend to sacrifice his own life to save the day. Which leads me to the most irritating, and most central, conceit of the film: Jamal’s victory is entirely coincidental. All the answers have come to him through accidents and chances, not through any actual effort to learn and improve himself. The narrative is littered with plot holes and incoherent leaps. When Jamal and Salim arrive in New Delhi, they’re both suddenly speaking perfect English. Later, Jamal is working in the call centre, bright and well-scrubbed and concealing his lacks—how and why he got this boost-up rather than not ending up as a garbage man is not explained. The point, that Jamal is more intelligent than most people despite being a “slumdog,” is undermined by the final fact that he’s just infinitely lucky.

That the bright, fast, giddy, and empty Slumdog can be grasped onto as a work of important filmmaking is an indicator of how emotionally bankrupt contemporary film culture is.

  • debt reduction spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 1:10 am

    I loved it! How do you not love it? Hands down the best of 2008 and the kid actors were amazing.

  • Rod spoke:
    20th/03/2009 to 3:51 am

    How do I not love it? For the reasons I’ve explicated at length.

  • Victor Gottheimer spoke:
    2nd/04/2009 to 10:38 am

    I feel your comments are valid but I still got emotionally wrapped up in it. I don’t always agree on the Best Movie Award, particularly Crash and No Country for Old Men, but this one seems deserving. The key is how much you lose yourself in the film and care about the characters and I did, on DVD.
    I was disappointed that there was no special background on the making of the film so I went on line and found your comments, for which I thank you.
    The translation on the screen from Hindi was sometimes too small.
    I think it was interesting to see the blend of modern technology and the slums. I work for a company that has a call center in the Philippines and we often kid about them but these centers are vast and key to many companies’ bottom line.

  • Rod spoke:
    3rd/04/2009 to 9:07 am

    Yes, the contrast between the high-tech boom of the modern Indian economy and the medieval mores of the social bottom dwellers does make an interesting and disturbing background. It’s something I’d have liked to see investigated with more depth — I have seen a couple of interesting documentaries on Indian workers in call centres, where it’s clear that if they’re English can’t come up to scratch they get the boot and face instant poverty. The film’s glib approach to that really irritated me.
    I didn’t have any troubles with the subtitles. Amusingly, the movie theatre I caught it at started it earlier than the advertised time, so I had walked in around the ten-minute mark, and as more people were arriving late the management stopped the film and started it again. I got to see Jamal jump in the cesspit twice.

  • tommy salami spoke:
    8th/04/2009 to 2:13 pm

    I liked the film, not sure about Best Picture- I’d have given that nod to The Wrestler- but what I enjoyed was that it was NOT original. It felt like a hyper Pressburger/Powell production, and my favorite films of yesteryear.

  • DavM spoke:
    13th/04/2009 to 8:20 am

    Movies like this are not really subject to critical review. A whole bunch of critics can sit there and pick it apart scene by scene, talking about its failures, but it doesn’t take away one bit from the emotional impact of watching it.
    For movies like this, I divide the population of the world into two groups: those who instantly respond to it, and those whom it doesn’t reach, and no amount of explanation will make them change their minds.
    This is even true for professional critics, whose job it is to pick films apart. Roger Ebert, James Berardinelli … just go down the top few reviews in the list at IMDB … make a few comments about the story, the cinematography, the script, the actors, etc. but they know what to leave alone. They recognize that there is a part to this movie that can’t be broken down any further into the elements of film-making, you have to take it as a whole, and you either get it or you don’t.
    Then there are reviewers like this guy, who have missed the impact of the movie. It’s not his fault, it’s not that he’s a bad critic, it’s just he belongs to that second category.
    So if you loved the movie, be happy that you can respond to joy and optimism on a visceral level. Be happy that you aren’t this guy who’s complaining that “.. which leads me to the most irritating, and most central, conceit of the film: Jamal’s victory is entirely coincidental. All the answers have come to him through accidents and chances, not through any actual effort to learn and improve himself.” This is a man who doesn’t understand that surviving that obscene childhood with your hopes, dreams and optimism intact, is in itself a triumph.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/04/2009 to 10:56 am

    With all due respect, DavM, any film is subject to critical review, from the silliest B movie to the most avant-garde film ever made. Films are the stories we tell ourselves, and they range from feel-good fantasies like Slumdog Millionaire to propaganda like Triumph of the Will. Examining what a picture does, why it does it, and how it shapes the culture that perceives it does a service to our social dialogue. You may wish to dismiss criticism of this or other films with the idea that “if it feels good, do it.” But I can assure you that not all seemingly benign messages are harmless. I applaud my colleague’s attempt to show what other messages this film may be conveying.

  • DaveM spoke:
    13th/04/2009 to 12:34 pm

    With all due respect, Marilyn, I would respond to Mr. Heath’s criticism if there were anything substantial to it. He’s called it pop art, as if it ever pretended to be anything else, as if that’s a bad thing. There is a lot of good in pop culture; diluting a value among the masses doesn’t diminish it.
    He has missed nuances throughout his analysis. Here are some examples just from a quick scan:
    “.. slimy host Kumar, who proves to be villainous for no particular reason other than to give Jamal yet another hurdle”
    There is indeed a particular reason. Kumar mentions it. Kumar himself is the only person thus far ever to have won this game show, he doesn’t want to share the glory with someone else.
    “.. characters are laid out in single dimensions, altered on whim when the filmmakers want to further their manipulation—particularly with Salim’s violent changes in character”
    Salim is always the nastier brother of the two, right from the start when he sells the prized autograph his kid brother obtained. At a certain point in the movie, he makes a conscious choice to follow a life of crime. He has just killed a man, in an act that could be interpreted loosely as self defense, but from that moment, the die is cast. He deliberately joins up with the local gangster boss. He still has some affection for his little brother; it comes out as a conflict between two things which manifests as conflicting actions. There is nothing gimmicky about it. People do act that way.
    “.. whilst Salim lies in wait to shoot their owner, sitting in a bathtub filled with money, a touch that’s absurd and purely for photogenic value”
    No, it’s not there for “photogenic value”. It’s the theme right along, Salim chooses money, Javed chooses love. All their actions up to that point and after follow these two divergent lines. The money in the bathtub is symbolism. You may call it cheap or corny, but don’t say it’s purposeless.
    I don’t have the patience to go through the whole thing line by line. I am not the critic here, Mr. Heath is. But when I see him say stuff like the bit I quoted in my earlier post, I can’t help thinking he missed the point.
    Here’s another:
    .. The heroes are no more well drawn. .. Both she and Jamal are remarkably well-scrubbed, pretty, and psychologically healthy despite all the shit they go through.”
    To people who enjoyed the movie, that is not a niggling irritation, as it is to Mr. Heath. That is the totality of the movie, the essence. That a man can be born and raised in such horrible conditions, but survive with his decency, his “psychological health” intact. That through our will, we can overcome obstacles.
    This is a philosophical position, and some disagree with it. Many (and perhaps Mr. Heath is one of them) believe that we are simply creatures of whim and fancy; a pavlovian product of our environments. Therefore people who were brought up in horrible conditions as children OUGHT to grow up to be horrible adults. It’s annoying when they don’t, it’s bad film making to show them any other way.
    This was why I divided the human race into the two categories. Regardless of how you may analyze the movie, your response to this does not come from your critiquing skills, it comes from your own philosophy, from your own sense of life.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/04/2009 to 12:54 pm

    DavM – I respect the way you’ve considered the plot points and how they work with the film, and perhaps Rod can further explain himself.
    As for dividing the human race into two categories, that’s an exercise in simplification that I find absurd and a bit dangerous. I don’t know anyone who is always a plus or a minus or a happy or a sad. There are many, many shades of gray, and I respect humanity in all its varieties. Nature or nurture doesn’t even begin to describe the human condition.

  • DaveM spoke:
    13th/04/2009 to 1:06 pm

    It will take more than a bare assertion that it is dangerous to convince me. We categorize everything, every day. Perhaps you call it dangerous because you think of it as pigeonholing. It’s not. None of my categories are exhaustive. I do not claim that either completely describes a man.
    It is just a handy tool. The way you might describe the population of a room as people who are either standing up, or sitting down. There is no great moral implication either way.
    I think it’s easier to categorize an emotional response. Thoughts and reasons can get awfully convoluted, but emotional responses are much simpler; they bypass a lot of nonsense that we only think we believe.
    In this limited and circumscribed way, with no moral judgments passed or intended, I stick by my categorization.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/04/2009 to 1:16 pm

    Standing up or sitting down is an objective reality. Ascribing feelings in the same way is not objective, nor is it easier. I know many people hate Jews. I’m a Jew. Therefore, they hate me, even though they’ve never met me. How would you categorize that feeling? Irrational? Sensible? Safe? Popular? Unpopular? Does that put a little flesh on the danger of oversimplification for you?

  • DaveM spoke:
    13th/04/2009 to 2:01 pm

    Hey, I’m not ascribing feelings, they’re really there. Read a dozen different reviews of this movie from people who were wildly enthusiastic about it. There’s enough material there to distill out the conclusion that they really liked it, it appealed to their sense of life.
    It’s not hard to see when this response isn’t there either, such as this case.
    In neither case have I drawn any normative conclusions, about whether it’s right or moral or earns extra brownie points with god or man. It just is.
    You are going off on the deep end, talking about Jews and drawing conclusions that were never part of my statements. There is nothing wrong with a certain kind of story producing a certain emotion, and all I care about is that I feel it and I am happy for others who do too. I carried it a step further by analyzing what it was that appealed to me, putting it in words. And I explained why I thought it passed Mr. Heath by, as per the two quotes I pasted, using his own words.
    That’s the extent of my categorization; that’s the extent of my analysis. This is not oversimplification. Oversimplification would be saying “there, now that I know that, I know everything about you, I know what kind of person you are”. I never did that, in fact, I explicitly said my categories were neither exhaustive nor complete. It is indeed possible to know a limited amount about a person, and that limited knowledge is not an oversimplification, it’s just limited.
    Anyways, I seem to have offended you. That was not my intention. I just wanted to say to all the people reading this review who might be discouraged from seeing the movie, based on its negative tone — don’t let that happen. This is a great movie, and you might disagree with this guy and agree with the dozen other critics who are absolutely raving about it. That’s all.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/04/2009 to 3:54 pm

    Dave – You did offend me. First, you insulted my blog partner by telling people who like the film to be glad they aren’t him. I’d be very happy if more people were as intelligent, loyal, cultural, and fun as Rod.
    Also, I don’t buy your definitions, that you either love this movie or hate it and will always hate it. Maybe that’s the take of the average moviegoer, but critics tend to like films that get to them honestly. Many critics, through long exposure to many films of many types, have learned to recognize those push-button plot points filmmakers use to get a rise out of us. You claim the people who love this film have no Pavlovian response, but I would submit that most films count on Pavlovian responses to get you and keep you in your seat. A lot of people are perfectly happy with that arrangement, and more power to them. I personally don’t like having my feelings manipulated in a movie any more than I like it in life.

  • MovieMan0283 spoke:
    13th/04/2009 to 8:17 pm

    Interesting conversation. In a way, I see what DaveM is getting at – beneath the cool-headed analyses and enthusiastic celebrations of various movies lie, usually, a visceral response which is the base upon which you build. I try to understand what someone could see in a movie before dismissing it (knowing that some people dismiss movies which have a huge impact on me; often merely because the movie somehow – I can’t understand how! – bypassed them; case in point: Mulholland Drive).
    But criticism, even in its bloggerly mutations (not that you guys aren’t critics, but I would hesitate in classifying my own work that way; a side point perhaps) is all about parsing these differences and taking account and stock.
    To a certain extent, Marilyn, all films and all art may be Pavlovian – just with varying degrees of sophistication, and sometimes tempered and diluted by a critical mindset. Personally, I would not say I prefer a film which questions its own manipulations to one which indulges them – I love both Godard and Hitchcock, for example.
    To me the problem with Dave M’s view is that while it – perhaps fairly – criticizes the general viewpoint of a critic who doesn’t “get” the work he’s slamming (i.e. doesn’t see why so many people like it…and I’m not saying Rod does this, but sort of drawing a general point from Dave M’s comment) – it does not allow much room for someone who can “get” a work and also criticize it. I don’t think I completely fall into that category, but I’m probably pretty close to it, because I mostly liked the movie (it only really lost me at the end) but also noticed many of the things that people have been criticizing about it. Like Moses perhaps (since we’re discussing Jews…) I did not enter the Promised Land of Slumdog Lovers but I got a pretty good view of the mountaintop and think I can understand pretty well why and how people were so caught up with it. At the same time, I don’t think this negates the movie’s flaws, especially because they seem integral to the film’s meaning and style, rather than circumstantial to it (circumstantial flaws are usually the reason for somewhat messy or problematic movies which are also truly great).
    Finally, we are all islands to a certain extent, able to see in different directions to understand some things but not all. Yet only by being honest in our opinions and reactions and critiques, and then by stitching together the various responses can we get a compelling peek at the bigger picture: the totality of an artwork’s effect (or an event’s meaning) and the potential reactions it can inspire (which can ultimately perhaps expand and even change our own view of the work). This is one reason the blogosphere is so valuable (even as perusing its myriad riches becomes exhausting, as I’ve been reminded this evening!)
    I think the best way to judge a work is to try and discover the highest possible visceral reaction as well as all the valid criticisms and then reconcile the two – not just intellectually but with an effort to appreciate the work directly. This is only possible to a certain extent, but I maintain it’s a worthy endeavor.
    And at the same time, this lofty criticism should not be all there is. Polemics, attacks, and celebrations definitely have their places too.

  • DaveM spoke:
    14th/04/2009 to 3:16 am

    I think Marilyn fails to see a critical difference when she talks about Pavlovian responses. The difference is between actions and emotions.
    Our actions are very much within our control. I can choose to drink some coffee right now, or I can choose not to. I can choose to steal or murder, or I may choose not to. I can choose to live a life of crime, or I can choose not to. If circumstances become unbearable and I have no way to live except through crime, I can even choose to end my life rather than live that way. These things are not controversial, we have examples through history, and contemporary newspaper accounts to show us that they happen.
    On the other hand, our emotions are not within our control in that manner. You have some control over what you do after you feel the emotion, whether you give in to it, repress it, whatever; but you have little control over the feeling. You can, of course, over the long term, change your basic premises, your view of life and existence, and that will eventually change your emotions. Or time and sufficient new experiences will do it for you. But it’s not the work of an instant; it’s not a choice you can exercise right now when you feel it.
    This is what I meant when I was talking about the two categories. There are some of us who believe that the course our lives take are within our control, through the choices we make, and therefore we admire people (like Javed in the movie) who can maintain their honor, their decency, through very trying circumstances. We see nothing accidental about it; we recognize that it took an effort. It may well have been easier to kill and steal, to work for the mob boss, rather than taking a job as a chai wallah at a call center. It may have been easier to wave a gun around like Salim did, and have people fear you, rather than be the one who feared. But Javed didn’t do it.
    This is why people respond to the movie so strongly. Before we can care about a happy ending, we have to care to about the characters. The response to this movie totally depends on how you see Javed and Latika: either as heroes and good people you care about, or irritating bits of fluff who don’t seem assertive enough and don’t show enough scars to suit you.
    Mr. Heath complains about this very fact. That Javed is “psychologically healthy” irritates him. This is not how Mr. Heath expects the world to be. This shows something about Mr. Heath’s thinking, which I described more precisely in earlier posts.
    Some brief background. I am a doctor, and I worked with a group organized by the Peace Corps in India for 3 years. For much of this time, I saw the slums of New Delhi in all their sordid and agonizing detail. I can personally vouch for the fact that humans (kids specially) respond to their surroundings in a diversity of ways. Many do not end up in a life of crime. Javed, in the movie, wasn’t a complete surprise to me.
    I agree with MovieMan that there ought to be a category for people who “get” the movie but still see its faults. I submit that most of the critics I mentioned, starting from Ebert down, belong to precisely this category. Go to Metacritic and check out the first dozen reviews. While they all seem to love the movie, they do in fact find fault with it too. Nothing is perfect, and “Slumdog” certainly isn’t. But these are people who see the big picture. They don’t judge it by some unattainable standard; they understand that what this movie gets right is far more important than the things it gets wrong.
    Mr. Heath, on the other hand, does not belong to this category. He has said enough in his review to make it clear that the very thing that makes the movie appealing to the masses is something he finds irritating.
    I think Mr. Heath’s dislike for the movie has prevented him from even understanding it properly. I listed a number of mistakes he made in his analysis in an earlier post. All of them smack of an impatience with detail that isn’t really very movie-critic-like. I get the feeling that he disliked it so much he just didn’t see these things.

  • Cyn_Helen spoke:
    14th/04/2009 to 5:42 am

    Aaaah! You missed the aging part in the Taj Mahal sequence. Look again!
    You said “The narrative is littered with plot holes and incoherent leaps. When Jamal and Salim arrive in New Delhi, they’re both suddenly speaking perfect English.”
    When they arrive at the Taj Mahal, (which is in Agra, not New Delhi, fix that please), they have aged. This is when the movie switches from the actors playing Javed and Salim as kids to the actors playing Javed and Salim as teenagers. You can see the change very clearly – the movie dwells on it for a bit to make sure viewers get it.
    The movie covers a period of 11 years. You can see very clearly that between the time they start train-hopping and the time they arrive at the Taj Mahal, they have aged several years. So they don’t start speaking English all of a sudden, there’s actually a gap of a few years there. This sort of age transition is a very common device in Bollywood movies. And they’re not speaking perfect English. Listen closely and you’ll see that it’s full of grammatical errors, not at all like the English they speak later on in the film.
    Also, I hate that reference to the last dance number (after the film ends and the credits start to roll): “Even the final dance number, an overt tribute to Bollywood, is a shoddy, under-choreographed disappointment.”
    That was one of the best parts of the movie, in my opinion. Yes, it was a tribute to Bollywood, but it’s an integral part of the story as well. The train station, the choreography, etc. are perfect for the actual words of the song. I’ll let that go, since you probably don’t understand Hindi and can’t parse it. There are plenty of translations on the web though, if you care to look them up.
    This song is the counterpoint to the scene where Javed and Latika first meet. If you recall, there’s heavy rain, Javed and Salim are sheltering under a tin roof. Latika is outside, getting drenched, until Javed invites her in. The song is about how the skies have cleared, and are alive and welcoming once again. It’s not just a tribute thrown in randomly, it’s there for a reason. The choreography reflects the actual words of the song (the first part of which describes how Javed felt waiting all those years for Latika, not knowing what was happening to her). It may not be as colorful and complex as some Bollywood stuff you’ve no doubt seen, but then again, it wasn’t meant to be. The trains, the narrow platform (which probably limited how complex it could get), etc. are all there for a purpose.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/04/2009 to 9:26 am

    I’ll let Rod take it from here. I prefer MovieMan’s nuanced approach to reactions to films to Dave’s neat categories. You’ve already admitted that you need a third category. What happens when a fourth appears? Perhaps dispensing with categories altogether would give you a more flexible response to differing viewpoints.

  • Rod spoke:
    14th/04/2009 to 9:48 am

    Hey, don’t like my reviews, don’t read ’em.

  • DaveM spoke:
    14th/04/2009 to 10:57 am

    Movieman’s “nuanced” approach is no different from mine. I don’t disagree with him on anything he’s said.
    I “admitted” long ago that the categories were not exhaustive or complete. Only, I didn’t think of it as an admission, just a statement.
    As to why categorize, that is the way of all knowledge. We always have to be prepared to add more and more elements as our knowledge grows. Wanting to fix the final number before you start implies you’ll never learn anything beyond that which you already know.
    As a common example, scientists started classifying materials by physical/chemical properties, that’s how the idea of elements and the periodic table came into being. They didn’t say “we better know how many elements there are before we start”. We wouldn’t have a list or a periodic table if they had. Nor did they say “we know there’ll be more in the future so this whole idea is useless”.
    As for Rod, there is no answer to what he said, other than to repeat that I didn’t post here for him, I posted for the other people who might read this review.

  • Rod spoke:
    15th/04/2009 to 6:03 am

    DaveM:
    Well, I shall retort for the sake of other people who might read this review:
    Movies like this are not really subject to critical review.
    All movies are subject to critical review. This is a cheap and degrading line of argument. Many films are entertaining and effective despite deficiencies in a way that is hard to describe, and many films are problematic and disappointing despite having much about them one should admire. It is a critic’s job to attempt to describe why, no matter how difficult. I’ll say what I damn well please because this is my United States of Whatever.
    This is a man who doesn’t understand that surviving that obscene childhood with your hopes, dreams and optimism intact, is in itself a triumph.
    Ah yes, I know this place: the “Yo Momma So Fat” School of Debate. Honestly, is this supposed to constitute an argument? I know people who survived traumas and better themselves against long odds, and in a close and personal way, so spare me this insulting assumption at least. And I also know magical pixie-dust endings like Slumdog Millionaire’s don’t come along all that often when you’re in a hole. This doesn’t constitute moral, intellectual, or artistic contemplation at all: this is “You mean man, boo-hoo, you spoilt my fantasy.”
    With all due respect, Marilyn, I would respond to Mr. Heath’s criticism if there were anything substantial to it.
    Then why have you bothered? Ah, yes. The traditional gambit of the intellectual bully where you will sigh over not needing to clean up the ninety-pound weakling, and then doing it anyway.
    This is even true for professional critics, whose job it is to pick films apart. Roger Ebert, James Berardinelli … just go down the top few reviews in the list at IMDB … make a few comments about the story, the cinematography, the script, the actors, etc. but they know what to leave alone. They recognize that there is a part to this movie that can’t be broken down any further into the elements of film-making, you have to take it as a whole, and you either get it or you don’t.
    I, like them, am not obligated to obey you or anyone in leaving anything alone, and the inference that we should is both insulting and stupid. You did not make Slumdog Millonaire; you are not owed felicity in investigation to spare your precious feelings. It’s a work of fiction, based on a fiction novel, which imposes fictions upon real and dire situations. It’s composed of aspects that are readily open to analysis. There are no acts of faith involved here.
    He’s called it pop art, as if it ever pretended to be anything else, as if that’s a bad thing. There is a lot of good in pop culture; diluting a value among the masses doesn’t diminish it.
    Actually, I called it pop moviemaking. Not necessarily a bad thing indeed, but it’s also not necessarily art. Pop art involves a certain level of irony in how it utilizes the clichés of popular culture. One of the definitions of art is that it generates complex reactions; it is not dedicated in mercenary fashion to result in invoking the same feeling in everyone. It is critical, not necessarily in the sense of being negative, but in asking questions we don’t necessarily want asked and don’t always have an answer for. Slumdog Millionaire is the exact opposite of this.
    There is indeed a particular reason. Kumar mentions it. Kumar himself is the only person thus far ever to have won this game show, he doesn’t want to share the glory with someone else.
    I can see Regis Philbin doing exactly the same thing. Yes, of course I caught that line. It’s mere expedient. Just because something’s covered by a line of dialogue, doesn’t actually make it convincing motivation. Also, I don’t recall it being specified that Kumar had been the first to win the show before: he simply said that he had risen from the slums to become a man of success. Perhaps I’m wrong there. Either way, his actions are there to provide one more impediment to Jamal’s victory. We need another villain at this point. Otherwise there would be no actual dramatic engagement in the quiz show scenes: it would only be Javed answering questions.
    All three of your cited extracts imply that I’ve missed the details, which isn’t true: I’ve called them for what they are, sleight-of-hand masquerading as substance.
    Regardless of how you may analyze the movie, your response to this does not come from your critiquing skills, it comes from your own philosophy, from your own sense of life.
    Pure undiluted sophistry. It’s an insulting comment, because it implies that you are a creature of great sensitivity and awareness and I must dislike children, Indians, and probably puppies, too; it’s patronizing and disturbing, because your implication is that emotional truth necessarily trumps intellectual truth. My emotional response is that I want to kick your teeth in, which is a long way from my reasoned response. I’ve had plenty of strong emotional responses to things where I’ve realised later it was over nothing. This is an argument quite a few proponents of the film have used on me and it’s bogus no matter who it’s coming from. There’s also an implication here that the film touches an almost religious nerve simply for playing out an appealing fantasy. I could make the same claim for almost any artwork ever created, as 99% of them involve the explication of some moral theme. Let’s try it out. Transformers to me presents a profound metaphor for Christian values in having Optimus Prime die and then be resurrected…wow, this works great!
    This is a philosophical position, and some disagree with it. Many (and perhaps Mr. Heath is one of them) believe that we are simply creatures of whim and fancy; a pavlovian product of our environments.
    No, and if you read my review properly you’ll notice that I precisely object to the fact that the film’s characters, plot arcs and “emotions” are Pavlovian products of a screenwriter and director well versed in Hollywood tricks, and only the film’s quick pacing obscures these tricks. The narrative has no interest in a believable sense of psychological cause and effect. It’s good prince and princess against forces of darkness with brother in between who acts out conflict according to whim. That’s my point, nothing to do with deterministic psychology.
    Therefore people who were brought up in horrible conditions as children OUGHT to grow up to be horrible adults. It’s annoying when they don’t, it’s bad film making to show them any other way.
    That’s reading an awful lot into what I said, and I wonder what your real agenda is. My comments are intended to once again draw out the lack of realistic and persuasive characterization and how they service manipulating you into a preconditioned response. For the film to work, to make audiences feel giddy and elated in the end, all the demons have to be defeated, and the prince and the princess remain empty vessels. We no longer accept these tropes in familiar settings but we’ll swallow them whole if placed in a situation where our guilt and lack of familiarity is predisposed to a favorable response. The film could be argued to be racist because it plays upon our desire to see easy-to-identify-with, flat characters battling the same old Manichaeist conflict and pulls it off by placing it in an exotic setting: slum-dwelling Indians only interest mass audiences in the west where they’re acting out aspirational fantasies. And yet there’s no actual contemplation of good and evil within themselves, which is necessary for true drama: what little there is is put off on Salim.
    There’s nothing necessarily wrong with trying to make a fairy tale for adults, by the way. I’m as fond of a melodrama – indeed it’s often preferable to and more insightful than a lot of so-called drama – as anyone. But I won’t pretend that it does things it does not do, and I won’t say one works when I think it doesn’t. My comments represent an aggressive refusal to take the film at the face value. If you want to take it that way, that’s fine, but that should not stop anyone from looking seriously at the building blocks.
    There’s a great Indian film from 1975, Night’s End which is everything Slumdog Millionaire is not: gut-wrenching, dark, rich in characterization and moral searching, with elements of both triumph and tragedy. I recommend it.
    No, it’s not there for “photogenic value”. It’s the theme right along, Salim chooses money, Javed chooses love. All their actions up to that point and after follow these two divergent lines. The money in the bathtub is symbolism. You may call it cheap or corny, but don’t say it’s purposeless.
    This is not nuance, this is pure music-video visual fetishism, and its symbolic value is shabby. It’s more than slightly ridiculous that such piles of money would be lying around to be used in such a fashion; and Salim’s too sketchily defined for his final scene to carry any moral weight beyond the childish one about choosing love over money you insist is so grand. Wow, there’s a message no film has ever purveyed before. The whole sequence is mostly about providing something interesting to cross-cut to whilst Javed triumphs.
    Salim is always the nastier brother of the two, right from the start when he sells the prized autograph his kid brother obtained. At a certain point in the movie, he makes a conscious choice to follow a life of crime…He still has some affection for his little brother; it comes out as a conflict between two things which manifests as conflicting actions. There is nothing gimmicky about it. People do act that way.
    It is a characteristic of Salim, but it’s employed in a gimmicky fashion. Salim’s changes of character come whenever the plot needs to twist. Salim’s nice when they need to escape the acid. He turns nasty again after Maman has been killed and Latika saved and we need a third act plot stake; he turns nice again to get Salim out of the gangster’s clutches. Just because a thin background of Salim’s ‘nastiness’ and arbitrary ‘conflicting actions’ doesn’t mean that this in any way shape or form constitutes a rounded human being.
    Returning to your contention that one should not analyse emotional responses to an artwork, I disagree intently. It is part of one’s role as an analyst of films precisely to look at how an emotional response has been wrung out of you. This film plays on the following predispositions:
    * empathy for children
    * desire to see the downtrodden win through
    * desire to see the bad guys get a comeuppance
    * distaste for violence, bullying, coercion and corruption being enacted on innocent people
    Just about everyone responds to these elements, from the hippest radical to the most ossified Tory. I respond to them. You respond to them. This is the essence of eliciting Pavlovian response. We are having our prejudices, our already-formed conclusions, empathies, and ideals used by the film to involve us in the story. Most of the same tricks can and have been used zillions of times in other settings and stories. Many films I’ve seen I’ve detected the same effort and gone along with it – when it’s done well enough. But when a specious piece of work of no particular aesthetic value gains a Best Picture Oscar, I humbly object. My bad review won’t make the Academy take back its awards or spoil the entertainment for anyone who likes the film. But I’m entitled to think about and critique a piece of work, and I’m awfully sorry if it offends your philosophy and sense of life.
    I get the feeling that he disliked it so much he just didn’t see these things.
    I saw. I thought. I said what I thought. Next.
    Mr. Heath, on the other hand, does not belong to this category. He has said enough in his review to make it clear that the very thing that makes the movie appealing to the masses is something he finds irritating.
    “Appealing to the masses”…it’s an interesting phrase, largely because it doesn’t mean anything. And thus it can mean anything you want it to. Of course to use it in this context immediately establishes that you claim to speak for the “masses”. No, you don’t. Neither do I, and at least I don’t claim to. You may speak for a section of the “masses”, but you can’t claim that any single sensibility belongs to the “masses”. I am one of the “masses”. No title or claim or status precludes me from that great nebulous group. Indeed I am by many measures somewhere close to the bottom in status amidst my nation’s “masses”. But in the very act of taking on an interest of analyzing films I am, indeed, removing myself from the bulk of the “masses” who may like or dislike movies but generally don’t concede much intellectual energy to them. That’s pretty well given. So when one begins analyzing a film, one might as well go all the way. To associate oneself with mass opinion and label the dissenter as irrelevant is an old stunt, and it also neglects the following, self-evident points: a) not all movies that are hugely popular right now will always be so, in fact many gigantic hits have been completely obliterated in the memory, and b) things unpopular now may be popular later. For instance, It’s A Wonderful Life, a film to which Slumdog and the whole “feel-good” genre owes a lot, was a painful flop in 1946.
    So let’s move on to consider the idea that appealing to the masses is something I find irritating. Well I can’t really say. All sorts of films are made for the “masses”. The “masses” like romantic comedies and kickboxing flicks and torture porn horror and car racing movies and historical dramas. I like quite a few of them myself. It’s how they appeal, what they’re appealing to, and they do to pull it off, that interests me, at least in part, and then to decide how well they succeed in using their common tactics. Appeal to the “masses” can also mean many things. It can mean a film anyone can enjoy. It can mean a film that tries to speak to their experience. There are ironies implicit in these divisions. Modern orchestral music, from the work of Bartok and Schoenburg onwards, was supposed to be music for the “masses”, designed to escape courtly formalities, ideologically dictated forms, and arbitrarily limiting styles. That genre of music is infamously unpopular. Much the same can be said of any film that presumes to appeal to the “masses”. Hollywood for instance makes many movies that they say have “popular appeal”, an appeal which is enforced by spending gigantic sums of money on bombarding your attention level. Nor am I obligated to like what the “masses” like. I not obligated to not like what the “masses” like. I am obligated to think for myself and draw my own conclusions.
    But again, I digress. Slumdog Millionaire irked me for using tired tricks of courting popular appeal without compensating with something more mildly exotic, not for having popular appeal. Many can’t discern the difference. Including you, apparently.
    There are some of us who believe that the course our lives take are within our control, through the choices we make, and therefore we admire people…who can maintain their honor, their decency, through very trying circumstances. We see nothing accidental about it; we recognize that it took an effort. It may well have been easier to kill and steal, to work for the mob boss…It may have been easier to wave a gun around like Salim did, and have people fear you, rather than be the one who feared. But Javed didn’t do it.
    This is Ethics for 5 year olds, and, as I pointed out in the review, at least as old as Angels With Dirty Faces (and not as sophisticated, either). I’d be interested if Javed showed some actual temptation to turn to crime, to be the man with the gun, and made a real moral choice that was described. That’s drama. That’s something of philosophical weight. That’s an interesting hero. If this communicates enough of a portrait of maintaining honor against trying circumstances, so be it. I’ve expressed why it doesn’t quite cut it for me.
    This is why people respond to the movie so strongly.
    Do they? The crowd I saw Milk with clapped the film they had just seen. The audience for Slumdog did no such thing. By these standards Milk is, according to my personal experience, far more resonant with people. Such anecdotes however mean nothing, and so does your point.
    Before we can care about a happy ending, we have to care too about the characters. The response to this movie totally depends on how you see Javed and Latika: either as heroes and good people you care about, or irritating bits of fluff who don’t seem assertive enough and don’t show enough scars to suit you….Mr. Heath complains about this very fact.
    You’re right. And yes, I like to be engaged by beings who come across as thinking, expressive beings, and not Ken and Barbie dolls acting out a ludicrous story. A flat hero in a slum drama is as boring as a flat hero in a comic book film.
    This shows something about Mr. Heath’s thinking, which I described more precisely in earlier posts.
    And the horse you rode in on.
    Some brief background. I am a doctor, and I worked with a group organized by the Peace Corps in India for 3 years. For much of this time, I saw the slums of New Delhi in all their sordid and agonizing detail. I can personally vouch for the fact that humans (kids specially) respond to their surroundings in a diversity of ways.
    Well, good on you. I praise you for your work. But you’re also trying here to morally bully me and other readers into agreeing with you. This has nothing at all to do with a work that was made by people many of whom had not been to India before the film shoot, and were simply recycling ideas and narrative tricks that had previously gained box office success.
    That all sorts of environments produce all sorts of people is not an insight of depth: it’s a plain truism. One reason films and all works of art exist is to explore why and how such diversity occurs. It’s an important and fascinating issue and this film has no interest in it at all. It’s a melodrama. The setting does not imbue it with a philosophical depth greater than a Star Wars film; actually it might reduce it to less. You, like the film, are recycling truism as insight, but I’ve tried to point out how the film corrodes its own thesis of the potential of a “slumdog” by making him a mere lucky bastard.
    And I can think of many films that a) include people or situations that are familiar, indeed painfully, to me and b) still aren’t very good.
    Now I’ll sound off on my own bat a little. Who the fuck do you think you are to make judgments on my character based on disagreement over a movie? Like many people I’ve encountered over the years who claim to argue for the “masses”, you’re actually a bully who employs flimsy arguments designed to assert your own wonderfulness. Yes, very deep. Very enlightening.
    Responding to you this much has been degrading enough. I won’t be doing it again, just so the readers know.
    Cyn_Helen:
    The fact that two different actors were now playing the parts kind of tipped me off that some time had passed. That doesn’t cover my issue. You merely draw attention to the device used to conceal the hole.
    Nor does the fact that the words of the song go with the dance necessarily mean it’s any good.

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