catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 23 :: 2008.12.19 — 2009.01.02


Out of darkness: A Mumbai story

When it arrives on DVD, Slumdog Millionaire would make an excellent double feature for discussion along with another film by Danny Boyle, Millions. It is not just that each film has “million” in its title, which is also a key part of each of the plots, but each film is centered on the theme of this issue of catapult: on a boy who often puzzles those around him by his strangeness, while essentially displaying no extrinsic qualities which are more remarkable than the ordinary wonder of being a little boy.  In each movie, what makes the boys unique is their simple but dogged pursuit of an ideal, their simple but dogged pursuit of love.

The screenplay for Slumdog is penned by an entirely different screenwriter than Millions, but it is worth noting another similarity. Each of the young boys has an older brother, who is as pragmatic and materialistic as the younger brother is idealistic. Well, almost. Each also, despite his faults, dearly loves his brother. And early on in both films, in spite of difficult circumstances, brothers are shown together careening in the headlong pursuit of childhood, in scenes that are remarkably joyous. It is only later that the world comes calling in the form of the complications of money and power.

The knock of the world is much harder, though, in the slums of Mumbai. In fact, that sentence might just be a good enough sentence to summarize the remainder of Slumdog Millionaire. We are actually introduced to the harshness of that life in the present time when the protagonist, Jamal, is being interrogated in a police station, accused of cheating on an Indian version of Who Wants to be Millionaire. In fact the introduction is so harsh that it is one of the elements that likely helped earn this film its R rating. For anyone who has lived in the sub-continent, this depiction of how the police might treat someone who is in their custody and without the means for bribery is accurate enough, but the film dials up the intensity with, perhaps unnecessary, echoes of Abu Ghraib. Thankfully, for this viewer at least, that scene is not extended and is treated as the horror that it is, as is another scene of extreme cruelty later in the film. 

After a confession by Jamal which he gives simply to end his misery, the main structure of the movie is set in place as Jamal is interviewed by the police chief, played by Irfan Khan, who gave a powerful performance of quiet nuance in last year’s The Namesake. The rest of the movie consists of a series of flashbacks, both to the night before when Jamal made it to the penultimate question to win it all on the game show, and to scenes from his childhood that explain why Jamal knows each and every answer. A friend of mine remarked that this structure got a bit predictable and tedious after a while, which is a fair comment, and yet it remains an interesting device to tell a complex story. It is simply that we have seen it before, and perhaps done more tightly and effectively, in films like The Usual Suspects or in reverse in Momento.

Also with regard to the plot, the film can be fairly tidily broken up into three acts: the first set in Bombay, the name the British Raj gave to Mumbai; then an interlude of travel all around India; and finally a return to Mumbai, the “center of the world,” as one character describes it. Roughly corresponding to these three eras, Jamal, his elder brother Salim and their friend, a girl named Latika, are played by actors of three different age sets. It is the first of these acts which I found the most compelling, perhaps because it is the act which focused most intimately on the lives of the street children of Mumbai in all their tragedy and little joys. The cinematography and editing in this section truly seem to complement the character of the city, vividly depicting its glory and squalor, the bright colors of Indian clothing and the washing of the same and the splashing of children in what are essentially sewers. And an opening joyous chase sequence runs the viewer through it all, while giving the eye enough time to dwell on certain details. This great introductory scene ends with a very Danny Boyle-esque stuttered pan-out from above to show the magnitude of the slum.

In almost sickening counterpoint, there are also aspects to this segment of the film which are almost too difficult to watch and perhaps even out of place with the overall tenor of the film. One scene reminds us that however much exacerbated by recent geopolitics, the horrific attacks in Mumbai several weeks back are part of a long, tenuous coexistence of two major religious groups in India, which has often been punctuated with jolting violence. Another set of scenes reminds us that circumstances that existed in Western society just over a century back-which Dickens painted in rather muted fashion in the novel Oliver Twist, and the musical even further muted-still exist in the world today (including in dark corners of our own society), with thousands upon thousands of Fagans eating up the lives of Olivers and Nancies in brutality that has no respite.

It is release from just such a Fagan-like character which propels Jamal and Salim away from Bombay to ride the rails of India. These scenes are masterful at portraying the very atmosphere of Indian train travel, down to the last jostle, smell and cry of the chai-walla. If a director can accomplish this feat, of depicting this complex and nuanced tableaux of Indian life which mixes people of every social strata but the topmost, it seems to me that one is on the right road toward understanding India. Consequently, now more than ever I feel that Wes Anderson’s 2007  Darjeeling Limited is limited, indeed, to being a tragicomedy of postmodern Western angst which only employs India as sort of a flat, albeit colorful, matte painting in the background, save for one or two moving scenes (though, in fairness, perhaps Anderson was attempting nothing further).

Though I believe Slumdog Millionaire has three distinct acts, it seems to me that the movie also makes a pivot in the middle of the second act, which also creates two halves of the film, with the second half being inferior to the first. The pivot comes specifically with an interlude at the Taj Mahal, where the brothers hone their skills at the con, making them each progressively harder and more worldly individuals, especially Salim. From this point forward, the plot increasingly begins to stretch credulity in service of achieving the desired end of a love story.

It is not the love story itself that is incredible, though it has all the tenacity, one-sidedness and longevity of the sweet romantic legend which structures Forrest Gump. Rather, the scenes in Mumbai leading to the resolution of the love story are problematic, though from a different angle, such scenes would be completely at home in a Bollywood melodrama and so perhaps are oddly fitting. Indeed, it is Jamal’s love for Latika which compels him to convince a grudging Salim to return to Mumbai to try to find her which begins the third act. After a brief return to scraping together a more or less honest living working in restaurants, the destinies of the brothers part, as a brief reunion with Latika ends with shocking violence and Jamal is left on his own.

Despite the weakness of plot, this section of the film maintains skillful filmmaking and visuals. In an illuminating scene when Jamal finally reconnects with Salim after many years, they meet on an open floor of a high-rise that is being constructed, high above the slum from which they emerged. Jamal slaps Salim for abandoning him but then is reconciled to him, and Salim renews his care for him by inviting him to stay at his flat. Salim’s care for his brother, though imperfect as in the past, is proved once again genuine as he makes the way for Jamal to escape from darkness, though ultimately he himself cannot.

This act of the film also seems to do a creditable job of painting an accurate picture of the new India, with its call centers for foreign corporations, technological impulses and Westernized forms of entertainment. The little vignettes across the social strata from around India, which Boyle shows us when the Slumdog Millionaire is on hotseat of the game show, ring true, with groups of people crowding around television sets to watch. I personally can remember very similar scenes from my childhood in Pakistan any time Muhammad Ali laced up his gloves to dance, and fight.

Lending further credibility to this section and the entire film are performances by a number of Indian actors, headlined by Anil Kapoor, a well-known Bollywood leading man of the recent past, as the game show host. Moreover, throughout the film, the Indians in the movie are allowed to say a surprising number of their lines in Hindi, especially the children. On a technical point, the subtitles are shown quite strikingly and effectively at different places and in different colors on the screen, as opposed to simply in yellow at the bottom, though I am compelled to note that if you know a little Hindi/Urdu, as do I, the translations are sometimes rather loose, though still communicate the right sentiment.

Finally, though I have not given away much about the plot of the movie at all, you likely know where it ends. This is not a very great secret, as the movie pretty well telegraphs the ending all along. And herein lies the problem with the movie. In attempting to be a feel good love story, the film perhaps overextends itself by entrenching this story in too much gritty realism. I feel Danny Boyle should have chosen between the two.  The first section could have been an ideal opening act to a rather more serious, if more difficult, movie to watch, as it heartbreakingly yet beautifully paints the perils of living on the underbelly of a metropolis teeming with the poor, ruled by the rich and ruthless, and with an energetic middle class. It is in this sense that Millions, which had far more overtly fantastical elements such as Christian saints appearing in visions to the protagonist, works better as a film and can speak as an uplifting fable.

And yet the story of Jamal, who quite literally rises from the cesspool of life to embrace its opportunities and who forms an unshakeable love for a girl who is at the mercy of men with no mercy but an abundance of greed and lust, is well worth watching, even given the implausibility of parts of its narrative, which caused this viewer at least to have his mind to work on several different tracks while watching in order to better appreciate the whole. The violence is not graphically grotesque, but neither is it easy to watch. My advice is to feel free to look away, to contemplate the impulse to wretch, both of which are actions which Boyle admirably has characters in the movie do in response. And beyond the violence and injustice, beyond the rather contrived set of circumstances near the end of the film, watch and contemplate the diversity and richness of life in all its squalor and beauty. And contemplate the beauty of a loving heart.

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