14 Feb 2009

The dumbing of India

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.


acidrocks said...

Hey Sudesh,

I did not really see a point in your arguments. I think you are trying to look for the 1 % of the errors , leaving 99 % of the good part out. The errors of logic that you are trying to point do exist in all the films. You cannot make a all n all logical film and expect it to be interesting/nice. Name one film which does not exaggerate or takes creative liberty ? Can't you just appreciate that this is a good film.It's getting the awards everywhere. I am sure the film must be of some substance to get all these awards. About the music Of course it's not AR rehman's best music but it goes great with the film. It does not have to be his best all the time but as long as it works for the film i think it's good enough ( (He won the Golden globe for it )I think you should stop knitpicking and accept the reality. The reality that Slum dog millionaire is wondeful, brialliantly made film. let me know what you think . It'll make an interesting debate.

ifnotme said...


Here is what I think:

1. Of course you cannot make it a logical film - most bollywood films are not, but this film has not been able to pass that bollywood test.

2. For years the American film industry has pooh poohed Indian film sensibilities so if they claim that this film is a coming of age of the Indian films then it has to judged as an Indian film.

3. If the defense is that it is a English film/foreign film about India then it is no different from so many foreign productions done in the last twenty years. Technically good but the story is not directed well.

4. The lead actor was only chosen because Mr. Boyle did not have the confidence to direct an Indian actor. His English accent is unbelievable. Watch City of Gods (Brazil) for a better interpretation of story of a growing up in the slums.

5. The songs are good especially the stuff he has done with MIA. However I would have been happier if he had got it for Lagaan. Also the song at the end Jai Ho was filmed very badly screwing up the experience for me.

6. Technically the film is leagues above many other films made by us or foreign productions. But the content just does not ad up. If you read the book it has all the elements of a Bollywood commercial which this director did not do a good job of.

I will be happy when the Indians get their oscars. The rest of it not deserved.

Anonymous said...

Hey Sudesh, thanks for writing this out so I don't have to. I'm going to link to this when I put up my own 'Dumdog Millionare' post. :)

ifnotme said...

thanks deepad...send me a link

acidrocks said...

hey guys...!!!

Now that Slumdog has literally sweeped the oscars i would like your comments. How come the Oscar jury did not see mistakes in the film that you guy see...? the fact that they talk in millions and not in lakhs or crores and the fact that everybody including the constable speaks english is not important at all. I hope you understand what i am saying. Please see the film in the larger picture and you will know why it is so good.

ifnotme said...

Just because a film wins the Oscar does not mean that all the criticism is swept away