In Seinfeld there is an episode where everyone is going gaga over The English Patient. That is everyone except Elaine. She just can’t understand what is the fuss about. I have been feeling like that for the past one month. Only in my case the fuss is about about Dumdog Millionaire.
I had heard about the film in Goa where several people who had worked on it were gushing about it. So even before watching I came with a few expectations. The first fifteen minutes blew me away. Let me elaborate :
1. The kids are natural and fantastic
2. The music is really good (although not Rahman’s best) and is able to infuse a lot of music influences from all over the world
3. The sound design and camera work adds to the crowded, rushed and edgy feel to the story
After that it was downhill all the way. In fact ,the minute Dev Patel came on the screen pretending to be from the slums of Mumbai, the film turned into a 21st century version of a Merchant/Ivory production. I was overwhelmed. How could they go wrong with such as simple story? For example:
1. What is with the accent of the lead character once he grows up? There is an explanation in the original book how Jamal learns to speak in an accented English. He gets adopted and works for a diplomat’s family. Simple. This is not there in the film.
Instead we are told to believe that he picked up the language and the accent working around Taj Mahal. Those kids and guides do know multiple languages but have a vocabulary of ten or twenty words. They also keep repeating words like – “Ya right” or “Cool” when they are not sure of what to say. Jamal does not. He is very confident of his language.
2. The Quizmaster meeting him in the loo during the contest and giving him a clue. There are better ways to help your candidate. Watch Quiz Show.
3. Most of the explanations to how he knows the answers (the source for the bhajan – Darshan do Ghansyam & identifying Benjamin Franklin’s face on the dollar) do not look convincing enough.
4. Of course the glaring sore thumb that everyone (including the constable) in India speaks English and the film uses millions to describe numbers instead of lakhs or crores. Grow up.
5. The song sequence in the end that is supposed to be a tribute to Bollywood, is silly. It is something a student would shoot in his first year of film school. All the director should have done is called an Indian choreographer and the sequence could have become a tribute. Right now it looks like a series of physical movements trying to copy a dance from an Indian film.
6. In the book the character has a multi religious name and the story is told in the tradition of Amitabh movies of the 70s where an underdog becomes a success against all odds. Maybe the scriptwriter should have watched a couple of those movies before. When Jamal wins the jackpot, I did not feel the joy.
In many ways the film says nothing new about India. It is neither a critique nor is it a tribute. The surface that the film scratched in the beginning is the greatest depth to which the story goes. Films made by a white director about a third world country at least centres around a crisis - Hotel Rwanda or the Killing Fields. You are swept away by the horror and tension in the story. Dumdog shows you poverty and then expects you to feel happy since the hero wins a million bucks at the end of it all.
In the Seinfield episode that I mention in the beginning of this post, Elaine’s boss decides to send her to Tunisia to experience life over there so that she appreciates The English Patient. I am waiting for someone to take me on a guided tour of Danny Boylewoodland so that I can appreciate the finer points of Dumbdog.
ps Four years ago Danny Boyle made Millions - a film about how a boy accidentally finds a bagful of money. That had a nice feel to it. How come he could not recreate the same magic.