Saturday, January 31, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

There were moments when Slumdog Millionaire swept me away. Everything good that has been said about its cinematography is true, and the A. R. Rehman soundtrack with more than a few numbers by the incredible M.I.A. makes watching this film a memorable experience.

The two brothers at the heart of the story are played by three sets of actors as they grow up. The youngest are the best, worthy successors to the cast of Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay. But there is a horribly jarring moment when the next pair, playing the adolescent Jamal and Salim turn up on screen sounding like they were enrolled at Cathedral, played tennis at the Willingdon and had NRI cousins. The truly puzzling thing is that they have not yet made some Cinderella ascent up the socio-economic ladder because they are still orphaned street kids doing what we are meant to think of as long, gruelling shifts in the kitchen of a restaurant somewhere in Mumbai.

The most unforgiveable aspect of this film is its complete, utter and total inattention to language, to the fact that English is an Indian language but one that is spoken with varying degrees of fluency, and different cadences, accents and intonations in different class locations. (This is something that is incredibly difficult to capture on film, although Nandita Das's Firaaq comes close to doing it best, particularly in the way the upper-middle class characters move from Gujrati to English in mid-sentence).

Now I'm quite prepared to be told a rags-to-riches story that explains how two kids from a slum acquired these markers of class distinction in their adolescence - indeed that is the real story here, not how one of them won a game show after he started speaking English like, well, like me. OK Mr. sociology lecturer, I can hear you say, consider for a moment that Danny Boyle may have been trying to pay tribute to Bollywood, where everything is possible on screen. Possibly, and indeed that offers a way in which to enjoy this film (I loved Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge for exactly that reason). But having heard Boyle claim in a BBC interview that he was perturbed by the description of his latest work as a 'feel good' film and had made it in the best tradition of British realism, I struggle to see this as Bollywood in English (a la Gurinder Chadha's disastrous Bride and Prejudice). And even Bollywood for all its escapism, doesn't violate class rules without some account - however strained - of social mobility. By the time I had accustomed myself to the Cathedral School brats playing grown-up games in the abandoned Tulip Star hotel, they had grown up again - this time morphing into (at least one) British Born Confused Desi struggling to suppress his natural accent on a trip home to his Indian relatives.

You cannot mess with English in India, particularly in a Mumbai slum. Surprisingly, books have managed this much better. Surprising because of course they don't have the luxury of subtitles or dubbing. There have been three big Bombay books with slum plots in the recent past: Gregory Roberts's Shantaram, Suketu Mehta's Maximum City and Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games. Of these, the credibility and integrity of the first two are aided by the fact that they are memoirs/travelogues by English-speaking visitors (or in the case of Mehta, returning natives) to the city. Even when characters who would not normally speak English do so in these accounts, we are prepared to accept that given the intermediation of the English-speaking author-as-reporter. Perhaps also the very medium of written text regularly places greater demands on the imagination, so that we are more willing to suspend disbelief, as compared to cinema which we expect (I expect?) to be more 'real'. But Chandra's Sacred Games is a masterpiece in this regard, in its ability to put English in the mouths of those who would not speak it without violating the reader's sense of credibility. Part of the trick here is his skilful peppering of dialogue with Hindi, Marathi and Punjabi words - untranslated, but so clearly embedded in a context that would allow a non-speaker of these languages to guess at their meaning. Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies attempts a similar multilinguality - multiple Englishes, but also Bhojpuri - although there is a great deal more explicit translation in his text. I am reminded here also of Peter Carey's resolute refusal to translate Australian slang in his novels (no one told me what a chevy was when I was growing up reading American novels, he once shot back at a questioner at Hay-on-Wye). English translations of work by the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o also regularly contain untranslated Gikuyu words, whose meaning has to be guessed from context. But even whatever one loses in momentary incomprehension in these works is more than compensated for by the experience of being immersed in a place as it is - not translated for the foreign reader.

Danny Boyle has it much easier. He could so easily have made a film mostly in Hindi. But Slumdog leaves you with the feeling that after the first few scenes, he got tired of working with actors in another language and took the easy (for him) route. Unfortunately this makes things difficult for an audience, struggling to reconcile what they know about a place with what he tells them. The tragedy of this film is that it begins in a blaze of promise and then leaves you shaking your head in disbelief, desperately willing the characters onward on their incredible journey, but knowing that when you leave the theatre the world will look the same.

I take your intellectual point, but I think Boyle's main concern was actually a pragmatic one. The alternative to having the characters speak English would be to have them all speak Hindi and subtitle the whole thing. That might have appealled to middle-class art-cinema-goers, but it would have drastically restricted its mainstream appeal. He wanted to make a film for the mass market, and that was the compromise required.

Besides which, the film requires far more serious suspensions of disbelief than the idea of slum kids suddenly learning English as they ride around on trains before winding up at the Taj Mahal. Perhaps the most serious is the idea that a chaiwallah would gamble away tens of millions of rupees when he didn't know the answer to the questions. That strained my disbelief to breaking point, not the acquisition of English, which is a necessary development to even get the central protagonist onto the show in the first place -- without which the entire conceit of the film would have been lost.

BTW, I am reading Sacred Games at the moment. I'm about 3/4 of the way through. It's got to Gaitonde's religious warblings and exile and I've become bored with it. Up until then, I would have agreed with you that it was a masterpiece. There's something about very lengthy books that tends towards self-indulgence, I think. A Fine Balance remains my favourite.
Can I recommend Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! which I watched last night. Very awesome, energetic yet understated, and socially superbly perceptive. And it doesn't mess with English.
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