Monday, January 26, 2009

Why I Didn't Like Slumdog Millionaire (Spoilers!)

I didn't see Forrest Gump but I can recall with chilling vividness the numerous conversations -- more like harangues -- that I had to suffer through where some person with Middle American middlebrow tastes had to explain to me how great Forrest Gump was as a film, all the while mistaking their own emotional reaction to that film with a carefully considered opinion on it.

(Hell, I cried like a baby during Superman Returns and yet I'm not stupid enough to argue that that film was as good as a similar film like Iron Man, for instance.)

And while I admittedly watch a lot of junk from Hong Kong -- and yes, I do have a double standard at work here because any way you cut it, Beauty and the 7 Beasts is a piece of crap -- I expect more from films presented in the West in "arthouse" theaters during awards season, especially films that somehow garner an excessive 11 Oscar nominations.

Which brings us to Slumdog Millionaire, a film I like less now the more I think about it.

The problem with Slumdog Millionaire is that it is a film made for an audience of emotional retards.

How else is one to explain a film where somehow the story of a poor child from the slums of Bombay getting onto a TV game show and winning millions of rupees is just not dramatic enough on its own? No, the child has to be an orphan. And not only that, a Muslim orphan whose mother was murdered before his eyes! And not only that, but an orphan taken in by a sinister benefactor who is recruiting kids to be professional beggars! And not only that, but the benefactor physically maims and disfigures the children to get more money out of them as they beg on the streets of Bombay!

Folks, we're venturing into Lillian Gish territory here.

It is also the kind of film where girls become prostitutes but conveniently remain physically pure and virginal for the heroes -- I'm supposed to believe that the Fagin-like guy who kidnaps Latika intends to pimp her out because virgins get more money and, yet, he's just not done that yet by the time that Jamal and Salim conveniently find her? She exists only to further Jamal's fantasies of a chaste and pure magical love to strive for. Without her, Jamal has no impetus to survive apparently.

And it's the kind of film where an adolescent character somehow has a gun hidden in the waistband of his pants when going up against hardened criminals and yet, none of the hardened criminals -- adults all -- has a gun at that same moment?

It's the kind of film where every event's backdrop is in direct proportion to the importance of the the event at hand. For instance, when Jamal confronts Salim late in the film, the confrontation takes place on the top of a highrise being constructed conveniently in the place of the slum where they grew up as kids, never mind how these two young adults just wandered up there during the day past numerous workers. Much like in Hong Kong films, the most dramatic gunfights seem to take place on rooftops; it's the same kind of lazy storytelling at work here.

The situation should have enough drama on its own that it doesn't require the most dramatic locale in the entire city to add weight to the proceedings. We get it already!

It's the kind of film where a man who is supposedly the Regis Philbin of India is able to feed wrong answers to a contestant on a game show but also can do it while being oh-so-conveniently out of sight or hearing range of any of the dozens of other producers and production assistants who are visible in the TV studio in every other scene.

It is the kind of film where the same guy can not only get mad when the contestant doesn't take the wrong answer that was fed to him but gets mad out loud, in front of coworkers, thus revealing the cheating he just attempted to commit.

Would the craven Regis ever even risk his career in so obvious a manner for such a trivial reason?

If anything, the host of a show like this would want the kid from the Bombay slums to win so that more and more kids from the Bombay slums would watch the same show and try to get on, thinking they could win millions as well; it's not in the host's interests for this kid to lose to begin with so why the attempted sabotage? We don't know.

Besides, the host's condescension to Jamal while on the show is enough for us to understand that the host character is a phony.

It's the kind of film where the hero is for one night the most recognizable person in India, with his car mobbed by throngs of wellwishers before his final TV appearance, and yet the same guy is able to just wander a busy train station in Bombay (Mumbai) unrecognized until he spots his true love right after the TV show.

It's a film where the criminal underworld corrupts only the "bad guys" of the piece and not the heroes.

Okay, let's forget all that. I can forgive a film that kind of lazy storytelling if the sentiments are there and the characters are involving. Hell, a lot of Frank Capra movies are guilty of similar sins.

The leads are appealing yet they remain blank, some simply "types" and none with much motive that we can understand. We have a central character whose very emptiness is what drives the film (much like Forrest Gump). A main character in love with another character in the context of a story that just happens to them and whose appeal to us in the audience lies simply on the leads' luck in getting out of horrible situations.

Jamal is resourceful but to what end? A love for a girl he barely knows? Both remain characters that we barely know or understand.

In the end he triumphs and we are happy because he was lucky and smart enough to seize multiple opportunities without losing his humanity in the process.


The cast are pleasing and the film's translation of tropes from Charles Dickens into modern India is interesting; I don't think that the filmmakers are very aware of what they are doing beyond simply using tried Dickensian plot devices but it kept me interested on some level as a former English Literature major.

I kept thinking that "this probably worked better in the novel" as I watched the film.

The laziness of the film is seen by the use of M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" in a sequence. One, the sequence is set years before the song was recorded -- no kidding, right? -- and, two, the song is a Sri Lankan-by-way-of-London rapper's rap using a much better song by The Clash as the sample underneath. I venture to add that the lines about Coca Cola in Strummer and Jones' original "Straight to Hell" would have both fit the film's narrative timeline and the subject matter much more closely than "Paper Planes does.

And what's so wrong with Coca Cola anyway? So as a viewer we are supposed to fear the smiling benefactor offering the kids Cokes in the middle of a trashheap as if the Coke and outstretched hand is somehow worse than the hell the kids are living in?

The message being that they are at least pure before the tampering of the West comes along to spoil their lives any further? That is the worst kind of patronizing on the part of the filmmakers.

It is the whole bullshit "noble savage" concept that was out-of-dated during the Victorian era and, worse still, it is being perpetrated by white filmmakers who think that they are saying something about the plight of poor people in Mumbai when really they are just creating entertainment out of "other people's misery," to paraphrase The Sex Pistols.

I venture to add that the real Jamals begging on the streets on Bombay would take every chance they got to escape and wouldn't be so pigheaded as to focus on a girl they barely knew for the sake of deliverance for themselves and those around them.

I recommend this review from indiewire's Eric Hynes; I wrote my piece before I read his review but he says a few things much better than I can.

UPDATE: For an example of how you make an affecting film about people overcoming some levels of adversity, I recommend Ann Hui's The Way We Are. My psuedo-review is here. It's the first film that comes to mind at the moment and at the very least, Ann Hui's film doesn't beat the viewer into emotional submission like Slumdog attempts to do. Ms. Hui understands that less-is-more and that some situations in life don't need any further amplification to make them dramatic for viewers.