Stayin’ alive

Within the last week and a half, I saw two movies that rank among the best I’ve ever seen: Slumdog Millionaire and DefianceSlumdog, as you probably know by now, is about an orphan from Mumbai who, in the process of fleeing starvation, murder, and the gouging out of his eyes, picks up enough trivia to go on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” and answer almost every question correctly.  (It’s about 100 times better than the premise makes it sound.)  Defiance tells the true story of the Bielski brothers in Belorussia (where most of my family is from), who fled to the forest when the Jews were rounded up in December 1941, and eventually organized the largest Jewish resistance operation of the war.

On thinking it over, I was surprised to realize I liked these two seemingly-unrelated movies for the same reasons.  Let me try to break down what made them good:

  • Both draw their emotional punch from reality.  Almost everything in Defiance happened.  Slumdog, while fictional, is (amazingly) the first Western blockbuster I can think of about modern India—a place where 21st-century communication, entertainment, and industry coexist with 16th-century squalor, and everyone acts as if that’s normal.  (If you haven’t been there, the anarchic street scenes might strike you as obviously exaggerated for effect.  They aren’t.)
  • Both tell wildly-improbable tales of bare physical survival.  Survival stories aren’t just the best for keeping you in your seat: they also provide a useful reminder that your beliefs about politics and human nature might be badly distorted by the contingent facts that you have enough to eat and that armed thugs aren’t trying to kill you.  (I tried to think of a phrase to summarize my political philosophy, and came up with “liberal pessimist pragmatist rationalist of an unsentimental kind.”  Slumdog and Defiance both explain this concept better than I could.)
  • Even as they starve, sleep in the rain, and flee their would-be killers, the protagonists in both movies pursue goals beyond just staying alive—which is what lets us identify with them so strongly.  Jamal Malik appears on a game show to win the beautiful Latika.  Tuvia Bielski risks his life to exact revenge on the police officer who killed his parents.  Days after losing their families to the Nazis, the young women who arrive at the Bielski settlement are weighing which of the men to offer themselves to as “forest wives.”
  • Both movies use visuals in the service of a story rather than vice versa.  When Spielberg filmed Schindler’s List in black and white (save for the famous girl in red), reviewers were full of praise: what a profound artistic statement he must’ve been making!  The result, though, was that people saw the Holocaust the same way they’d seen it everywhere else: as something from some remote, incomprehensible black-and-white past.  But Defiance, like The Pianist, denies you the luxury of a visual remove—as if to say, “this is how it was.  It’s part of the same universe you live in right now.  It’s not even particularly incomprehensible, if you choose to comprehend it.”
  • Both movies indulge the audience in what it already knows about the respective cultures.  Slumdog features hilarious scenes at the Taj Mahal and a call center, and ends with a tongue-in-cheek Bollywood dance number.  Defiance portrays the “malbushim” (the Bielskis’ derisive term for intellectuals) arguing and quoting Talmud as they starve in the woods.  It’s as if, instead of telling you that the stereotypes you came in with are false, these movies say “and so what if they’re true?”
  • Both movies have been criticized as “simplistic”—a word that seems to mean “too clear or comprehensible for polite company,” and that I’ve found to be an almost-perfect marker for things that I’m going to like or agree with.  Even as the plots add on layers of complexity—sibling rivalries, uneasy alliances, unconsummated love—the dialogue is always straightforward enough that even a borderline Aspberger’s case like myself could follow what was going on without difficulty.
  • Despite a backdrop of blood and tears on a continent-wide scale—which the audience knows full well is real, not fictional—both movies end up joyous and uplifting.  Lots of bad guys get blown to pieces, while the good guys you most care about live.  Is such uplift “glib,” “problematic,” or even “simplistic”?  Well, what’s the point of going to a movie in the first place?  I want to walk away feeling that the inherent injustice of the universe can be successfully defied, that I need not apologize for taking comparatively benign steps to solve the comparatively trivial problems in my own life.  I want my $10’s worth.

38 Responses to “Stayin’ alive”

  1. R.B. Says:

    When I first saw the trailer for “Defiance” I (somewhat shamefully) thought the story was: (1) – fictional, and (2) – so completely absurd it was almost humorous. After finding out these events really took place… well it was a moment of pride.

    “Schindler’s List”, “the Pianist”, and (to a lesser extent) “Die Falscher” are terrific films. But, at least for me, they don’t seem to evoke this feeling.

  2. Shubhendu Says:

    This is a surprise post on this blog, but a good one none the less. You are right, Slumdog is easily the first western blockbuster which features modern India, the movie is pretty decent. As somebody who has lived in Mumbai, I do hold that the movie is somewhat of an over-simplification, but not an over-simplification in the way it has been criticized, but in the way that the director has shown it rather quite dramatically. But that’s something that is okay, it is a movie after all.
    Also what has been shown is just a component of life in India. I hope western audiences don’t come to a gross generalization to what kind of a country India is, based on what is shown in the movie. The story is a love story with poverty in the background (based on slums from Mumbai), and that’s it.
    When I go abroad I do notice that people STILL have a very stereotypical view of the country. Like having only godmen, babas, meditation, snakes and elephants. I kind of hate the ignorant confidence with which people say things like that.
    I do hope that this movie does not, in the mind of western audiences fit in another stereotypical view of India.

    But coming back, great post! And I will make it a point to watch the other movie you mentioned.

    – Shubhendu

  3. Shubhendu Says:

    And by the way, Since it was the first time I commented. Let me take this opportunity to tell you that i enjoy most of your posts.
    I have been following your blog for a year or so. I always like what you write about places, you do have a good understanding how things work in other cultures. 🙂

    And ofcourse read about your work though sometimes hard to follow is very cool, INTERNET is indeed the great leveler. Isn’t it?

  4. Shubhendu Says:

    Ooops, sorry for the missing punctuations in the last sentence.
    Now that I am going to (sorry) post another comment, let me clarify further. Isn’t it amazing to think that people who 15 years ago couldn’t even have imagined to read something from the zonal engineering college can now freely access knowledge from places like MIT, Berkeley, Stanford etc. A great leveler indeed!

  5. Moshe Says:

    you were not bothered by the, how shall I put it, highly fine tuned ending of Slumdog? you can now go see a movie about the suffering of orphans in India, without this in any way disturbing you in dinner afterward. Genius!

  6. Moshe Says:

    Here is Rushdie on Slumdog:

    “I’m not a very big fan of ‘Slumdog Millionaire. I think it’s visually brilliant. But I have problems with the story line. I find the storyline unconvincing. It just couldn’t happen. I’m not adverse to magic realism but there has to be a level of plausibility, and I felt there were three or four moments in the film where the storyline breached that rule.”

    Which is precisely the way I felt, you could see the puppeteers in this one, trying to spare the audience too much discomfort.

  7. Scott Says:

    Thanks, Shubhendu! I agree that Slumdog doesn’t cover the full extent of what there is to know about India. 🙂

    Moshe, I think the only way to make a movie about suffering orphans in India or the Holocaust is to have a happy ending. Unless they’re complete idiots, the viewers know full well that what they’re seeing is postselected, but postselection is exactly what they need. Or are you more likely to donate money to help the orphans in India if you’re too disturbed to eat dinner afterward? It’s an interesting empirical question, but I could see the answer going either way…

  8. Atri Rudra Says:

    I liked slumdog too: it was very nice “timepass” movie.

    However, here is a nice counterpoint to the buzz surrounding slumdog.

  9. Raghu Says:

    I wonder what your reaction would be to Salaam Bombay (SB). It is a movie about orphans in India, and is ‘way’ more depressing than Slumdog.

    I thought SM was good. But, even though I saw SB five years ago and SM only a few weeks back, talk about orphans in Bombay makes me think of SB much more than SM.

  10. anon Says:

    Both movies have been criticized as “simplistic”—a word that seems to mean “too clear or comprehensible for polite company,” and that I’ve found to be an almost-perfect marker for things that I’m going to like or agree with.

    I haven’t seen either of these movies, and this comment is not meant as a criticism of either of them.

    My belief is that life, romance, society, emotion, and such are inherently very complex, multifacted subjects. As such, I usually like film portrayals that are textured and manage the many (often implicit) aspects of these well. When I see the word “simplistic”, I assume that a film has oversimplified these concepts in order to make some sort of clever point, or to further a contrived plot. Almost any major event in real life is filed with so much context, history, and subtlety that it would be impossible to make it all explicit. Let alone to do so in a couple of hours of film

  11. harrison Says:

    Moshe, I think the only way to make a movie about suffering orphans in India or the Holocaust is to have a happy ending.

    Except for Grave of the Fireflies, which is about suffering orphans in WWII-era Japan. And The Kite Runner, which isn’t nearly as bleak as Grave of the Fireflies but isn’t exactly “and everyone lived happily ever after,” either. And… those are actually the only examples I can think of off the top of my head, so you may have a point. 🙂

    Anyway, there’s a time and place for movies without happy endings, even unrelentingly depressing ones, but if things are shitty then it often helps to watch someone overcome an even worse situation (and, like Scott said, strive for goals beyond mere survival) even if your suspension of disbelief gets a little stretched.

  12. MattF Says:

    I’ve only seen Defiance, and I liked it, but not so much as you did. On the other hand, I usually avoid movies about you-know-what– and the fact that I found Defiance to be tolerable is actually unusually positive…

  13. moshe Says:

    I think my comment is much shallower than that. I usually don’t enjoy movies that treat me like a child, requiring me to continually suspend disbelief, forgive leaps in logic, and pretend I cannot guess what is going to happen next. This one started out well, but somehow degenerated to one of those predictable movies I dread halfway through.

  14. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    I agree with harrison here: “Grave of the Fireflies” is animation genius. And it, shockingly, does NOT have a happy ending. How often does animation literally bring tears to one’s eyes?

    I can’t be remotely objective about Defiance. I have one blood relative who survived the Holocaust by, as a little boy, hiding under the front stairs of the synagogue into which the SS herded the entire village, then burned the building to the ground.

    Another blood relative escaped a Nazi concentration camp, and fought with Polish partisans against occupying Nazis.

    Now, if only Pope Benedict XVI understood that to negate an excommunication of a schismatic bishop who explicitly says that not a single Jew died in a gas chamber, is not acceptable. Irael was correct in, today, withdrawing their envoi from the Vatican.

  15. michael vassar Says:

    I have been avoiding Slumdog because it sounds hokey, but I’ll take your advice and give it a chance.
    The source that to me far exceeds all others I have seen in making the Holocaust seem real and comprehensible however does NOT make it look normal. It not only uses black and white, it turns all the characters into mice!

  16. Scott Says:

    MattF: I, too, limit my consumption of Holocaust books and movies; the last thing I need is to spend more time thinking about it. But I tend to like any movie (whatever the setting) with nerdy victims fighting back and winning.

  17. Scott Says:

    Atri: That review’s hilarious, thanks! “Yes, but what did you really think of Slumdog?” 🙂

  18. Scott Says:

    Moshe and everyone else: Your comments prompted me to think through what sorts of realism I like and don’t like. Here goes…

    If a movie involves science, I want it to get the science right (even though almost no movie passes that test). If it involves history, I want it to get the history right. (That Enigma made Alan Turing a heterosexual was laughable and unforgivable.) If it involves an unfamiliar culture, I want it to get the culture right. And crucially, unless a movie is pure brainless comedy (Austin Powers) or delightful fantasy (Pixar films), I don’t want it to waste the opportunity to show me some important aspect of reality.

    But when it comes to plot, I’m willing to forgive almost any implausibility. Movies simply operate on different laws of causality from the external world: their final state is postselected, not just their initial state. If I want ordinary causality—where the gun shown in Act I just sits on the desk through Act III and never gets fired, the pretty girl who meets the hero’s eye gets hit by a bus the next day and plays no further role in the story, etc.—I don’t need to go to the movies, I just live my life.

    Does this mean I enjoy movies that “treat me like a child”? Then let me not grow up.

  19. moshe Says:

    I guess it is a matter of degree and personal taste. If you don’t sit there rolling your eyes, like I did, that’s perfectly fine.

  20. milkshake Says:

    History channel had documentary on Bielski brothers few weeks ago – quite detailed one actually – it included interviews with a number of survivors. From the documentary, one figures ot that the villagers were just as afraid of Bielski revenge as they were of Germans.

  21. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    But when it comes to plot, I’m willing to forgive almost any implausibility.

    Well, with any aspect of a movie, I’m happy if it’s substantially true or realistic; and I’m happy if it’s openly unrealistic. It can even be fine if it has some of both, as long as there is a clear distinction. I’m not so happy if it pretends to be realistic but then cheats.

    For instance the science in The Incredibles is ludicrous — but it’s still one of my favorite movies. In fact the science in the DVD extra, “Jack-Jack Attack” is even more ludicrous than in the main movie. If anything, with that addition The Incredibles is even better.

    Are there movies with no realistic science? For example, and ironically, another Pixar movie, Finding Nemo, has a lot of realistic science as well as over-the-top fantasy. Whether this movie has an adequate separation between them is a controversial point, but I personally am happy with it.

    Actually it’s not very easy in a movie to address any technical topic at all in much depth. I admire any movie that succeeds, whether the topic is cooking (Ratatouille — Pixar again) or cars and criminal law (My Cousin Vinny).

  22. Atri Rudra Says:

    Scott: You’re welcome: Great Bong is one of the treasures among Indian blogs.

    As for Slumdog, I liked it: in some sense it was like a “typical” Hindi movie except the production was better and there were no songs and dance sequence (at least not before the credits rolled). Most of the main actors were known ones so it added to the “familiarity.” As for suspension of belief, I have been brought up on a glut of popular Hindi movies so doing that was not hard at all 🙂

  23. Greg Egan Says:

    I have been avoiding Slumdog because it sounds hokey

    It is immensely hokey. It’s also immensely gripping, funny and moving.

    The filmmakers neither expect you to believe in divine fate, nor to believe that the events in the story could plausibly happen just by chance. What they want you to do is to accept that a story where such things happen can, in spite of its implausibility, distil something worth experiencing. And in that, I think they prove themselves right.

    Some of the criticism it’s received seems to be predicated on the bizarre notion that it’s this movie’s role and duty to educate Western audiences about the totality of life in modern India, or to offer a sophisticated analysis of the social problems that form the backdrop for the story. I’d hate to live in a world where Slumdog Millionaire was the only view of India available to me — let alone the only view of life in general — but no one’s asking me to.

  24. Shubhendu Says:

    I agree with Comment #18 by Scott in almost its entirety, A fictional story line needs to have a positive ending in some sense, otherwise there is no point in wasting time.
    For some such stories implausible endings can indeed be forgiven. Farce comedies are another matter. There can be an unclear ending (not positive/ fictional story line) for some very well made movies such as Mulholland Drive.

    I have a different opinion about movies that are based on real life stories. Real life stories ending in a positive light such as October Sky are very inspiring, however I find movies based on real like stories that do not end on a positive note good too, as they have much to teach. Like let me give an example of the the movie Awakenings, it had a sad ending. But it did change me. It made me think.

  25. John Sidles Says:

    Since Greg Kuperberg confesses to be an Incredibles fan, then I’ll confess too … my whole family watches The Incredibles, Young Frankenstein, and Galaxy Quest, over and over again … because they are (science-themed) films that are uplifting and joyous in precisely Scott’s sense.

    And we often watch Dr. Strangelove, Terminator II, Alien, Aliens, and Alien Resurrection, and Bladerunner, whose themes are uplifting but definitely not joyous.

    The consensus within our family is that our twenty-first century definitely will be uplifting, and there is considerable reason to hope and expect that it may be joyous.

    We are—all of us—still writing that script.

    That is why engineers sometimes grow impatient with pure mathematicians, whose creativity is self-restricted to rigorously proving what is true. For the twenty-first century to be joyous and uplifting, human creativity will need a much broader scope than that!

  26. aram Says:

    I think the point of the ‘Great Bong’ review is that movies made by outsiders often ring false to people who know the culture. It’s not so much that Slumdog insults India, but that it looks through it from fundamentally Western eyes. And so, as Westerners, it gives us a less informative perspective than we might hope for. And when Indians watch it, we can’t blame them for rolling their eyes like the Great Bong reviewer did.

    I want to echo the recommendation of Salaam Bombay as a movie with all the advantages of Slumdog, and many fewer false notes.

    The book The White Tiger also talks about poverty in India, and is an excellent read, but there too you can see how the author can’t shake his international, upper-class perspective.

    Similar things happen with Western movies about Africa. Compare Blood Diamond (with lines like “without this diamond, you’re just another black man in Africa” expressing the common Western idea that Africans are either villains or helpless victims, but never agents of their own salvation) to anything ever made by any African director, like Djibril Diop or Ousmane Sembene.

  27. Scott Says:

    Aram: I don’t blame Indians for rolling their eyes at Slumdog, just as I wouldn’t blame Chinese people for rolling their eyes at egg drop soup with crunchy noodles. But what can I say? My upbringing and preferences being what they are, I like egg drop soup.

  28. Hyperbolic Says:


    It’s not that simple. Bollywood’s depiction of India at the very least has deep roots in a certain ‘western’ point-of-view.
    At a tangent (but related), it’s an interesting historical fact that at the height of Indian nationalism members of the Indian elite tried to configure a vision of the country in opposition to what they believed to be an overarching western trait — ‘reason’ (and thereby furthering a British point-of-view). For example, till the late 1800s the richest and most vibrant school of philosophy in Bengal was the Navya-Nyaya. By the ’40s they were almost wiped out. And now, for most indians, Indian philosophy equates with Vedanta. Another thing that got wiped out was the way in which Indian philosophy was done: scholars meeting up and arguing the hell out of each other or writing out and distributing their main theses or commentaries on someone else’s theses, etc. That’s all been replaced by the image of a ‘fakir’ sitting real still in one place and peddling woo. (However, it is only fair to note that certain kinds of ‘fakirs’ keep a stash of quality stuff, which they readily share. So, conversations with them are never unenlightening.)

  29. Cody Says:

    I haven’t read the other comments, but personally I enjoy most of Danny Boyle’s movies (director of Slumdog), they tend to provide unique insight into the human condition and behavior, without wandering too far from reality. The Beach, Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, and Millions all take (somewhat) plausible situations and convince you (me) to relate to actions that most people would outright denounce, and 28 Days Later does the same by pointing out unique consequences of typical zombie movie scenarios. Sunshine I found to be too offensive to my scientific mind, and Millions is probably my favorite, which I definitely recommend, though it has an unfortunate mystical element. They all tend to explore the effects of placing a human in an unusual but plausible situation that evokes strong empathy, I’d call them “consciousness raising”.

    I guess now I need to go see Defiance.

  30. Cody Says:

    After reading the other comments, I just want to throw Contact out there as one of the few movies that (reasonably) succeeds in appeasing scientific rationale; there is an astronomer I think who reviews movies for their scientific credibility and the only discrepancies that I recall were that specific radio frequencies and certain diesel engines are used near the VLA to avoid interference, the movie (and book) exaggerated how many dishes were actually at the VLA, and maybe one or two other minor details (maybe that wormholes are awfully speculative?). The arguments against Slumdog Millionaire that it is too unrealistic somewhat baffle me, as I cannot think of many movies that are “realistic”, beyond being not impossible, and many of the ones I can think of simply are not very popular. Also, I loved WALL•E, along with most of Pixar’s movies.

  31. moshe Says:

    Just a clarification, my gripe is not about the movie being unrealistic, I am perfectly happy with movies like incredibles that create a fictional world, with its own internal logic, and stay true to it. I just found that Slamdog stopped following it’s own logic. So, at some stage it took a sharp turn, stopped being original and novel and captivating, and started following a familiar plot line I’ve seen a thousand time before, and just started plain boring me, which is the ultimate sin for any piece of art.

  32. John Sidles Says:

    Moshe says: Boring me is the ultimate sin for any piece of art. … Nice one, Moshe! 🙂

  33. Atri Rudra Says:

    On a somewhat tangential movie line: I saw Gran Torino yesterday and Clint Eastwood is just plain awesome. His resume is pretty impressive in the fact that his best works have come as he has gotten older. Which got me thinking: who would be the Clint Eastwood of TCS (or math in general)?

  34. H Says:

    “The arguments against Slumdog Millionaire that it is too unrealistic somewhat baffle me, as I cannot think of many movies that are “realistic”, beyond being not impossible, and many of the ones I can think of simply are not very popular.”

    First: The argument is not agains Slumdog, but against the HYPE for Slumdog.
    Second: The argument is not that it is unrealistic. It is unrealistic as most movies are, which by itself is not a bad thing.

    The argument is that it’s pretty cliched, and in complete agreement with most western stereotypes of India (to the point that it cannot be considered a byproduct of the creator’s `vision’). As a result of which you (I) feel the movie’s characters are lacking in … (something I can’t quite name; I don’t want to say depth – which seems to be the popular choice in finishing such a sentence, but which actually says nothing).

    The movie is still fun to a certain extent.

  35. milkshake Says:

    Gran Torino is Million Dollar Baby re-made into a comedy (until about half way through the movie). I enjoyed it very much while I knew my sentiment buttons were being pushed.

  36. Vaibhav Says:

    Dear Scott,

    Here is how some of us feel about this movie.
    This is from the blog, and this person in my
    humble opinion knows a thing or two about movies.
    While I dont expect you to take time out of your very important
    career to read this, I just put this here, for the many like me
    who enjoy your blog.

    Here is the short of it.

    I did not like “Slumdog Millionaire”. Or perhaps I should say I was not at all impressed. Maybe it was all the hype, the Oscar buzz and the “It is soooo awesome” first-person accounts I have heard over the last few weeks that led me to go into the theater with unrealistic expectations. Perhaps.

    First let us get the standard attacks on reviews one does not like out of the way.

    Yes yes I am being contrarian to get attention.

    Yes yes I am too idiotic to understand a truly great movie.

    Yes yes I suffer from a third-world siege mentality where I am offended by anything that does not show my country in a purely positive light.

    If we can now move beyond these, then let us proceed.

    And yes. If you have not seen the movie, then perhaps you are better off not going below the fold (though I try my best not to give away the ending) if you want to “experience” without any pre-knowledge this supposed masterpiece.

    There is a difference between clever film-making and great film-making. Make no mistake, Danny Boyle is immensely clever. “Slumdog Millionaire” is made as an out-and-out “crowd-pleaser” through proper audience-targetting which is done in the same careful way the Chopras target the lovey-dovey high school/college crowd and the Anil Sharmas target the uber-patriots.

    This crowd-pleasing is done through punching together as many stereotypes that Westerners have about India as is humanly possible. People live in garbage heaps. A character jumps into a huge heap of human excreta and without batting an eyelid comes running out covered in brown slime, as if its the most natural thing in India, to get an autograph of a star. The hero, a Muslim, sees his family slaughtered by Hindu rioters and sees along with it a rioting kid (presumably) dressed as Lord Rama, in blue paint and with a bow and arrow in hand, standing as a sentinel of doom, an image whose indelibility in the character’s mind becomes a principal plot point.

    A character is booked on the flimsiest of charges and then he is beaten black and blue in a police station and given volts of electricity.

    What else? Let’s see.

    Child prostitution. Check.

    Forced begging. Check.

    Blindings of innocent children. Check.

    Rape. Check.

    Human filth. Bahoot hain sahab.

    Call centers. Oh yes most certainly.

    Destiny. Of course.

    But wait. Do Hindu saffron-clothed Senas not run havoc through Muslim slums? Do street kids not get taken in by beggar gangs and maimed? Doesnt rape happen in India? Are those slums specially constructed sets? Why do you, third world denizen, get so defensive about your own country? Chill.

    Well yes these things do happen in India. However the problem is when you show every hellish thing possible all happening to the same person. Then it stretches reason and believability and just looks like you are packing in every negative thing that Westerners perceive about India for the sake of “crowd pleasing”. Because audiences and jury members “feel good” when their pre-conceived notions are confirmed. On the flip side, nothing disquiets a viewer as much as when his/her prejudices are challenged. So Boyle does the safe thing.

    Let’s say I made a movie about the US where an African-American boy born in the hood, has his mother sell him to a pedophile pop icon, after which he gets molested by a priest from his church, following which he gets tied up to the back of a truck and dragged on the road by KKK clansmen. Then he is arrested and sodomized by a policeman with a rod, after which he is attacked by a gang of illegal immigrants, and then uses these life experiences to win “Beauty and The Geek”.

    Even though each of these incidents have actually happened in the United States of America, I would be accused of spinning a fantastic yarn that has no grounding in reality, that has no connection to the “American experience” and my motivations would be questioned, no matter how cinematically spectacular I made my movie. At the very least, I wouldn’t be on 94% on Tomatometer and a strong Oscar favorite.

    But then you say—Boyle is constructing a fairytale, a dash of Indian exotica, a love story. Surely he can take liberties. Make the darkness darker in order to brighten the halo around the hero and heroine.

    Ok I get it. That’s why the first shot of Taj Mahal is through filth, when any other shot would have done. That’s why the host of Millionaire is shown heartlessly mocking the fact that the contestant is a humble “chaiwala” as the audience laughs with him in a way that reminded me of Amrish Puri, rolling his eyes and saying “Tu to gandhi naali ka keeddaaaa hainnnn”. Even though this kind of class-based running down will never ever happen on “Millionaire” if for nothing else than political correctness , lets accept it happens just to heighten the drama.

    Which brings us to the main weakness of “Slumdog Millionaire”. There are way too many things you have to “accept” in order to enjoy this supposed “glorious celebration of exotica” , too many plot contrivances, too many loopholes you can drive a truck through that you have to turn a blind eye too.

    Suspension of disbelief is one thing, after all movies are not logic proofs. But “Slumdog” sometimes gets so focused on the “scents” (excreta) and “sounds” (pain) of India that it does not bother to even try to make some of the fantastic coincidences look even moderately plausible.

    But then again, as you said, it is a fairytale. Which means it has infinite license for taking liberties.

    The thing is that the same people who are going ga-ga over “Slumdog” saying “Areee yaar, dont over-analyze. Dont see it from a realist perspective. Just enjoy the ride” will go and say “What! She cannot recognize Shahrukh Khan just because he doesn’t have his moustache” and ” Wait. Rahul Roy sings Jaane Jigar Jaane Man and just finds Anu Agarwal in the city of Mumbai by doing that ” and “Gimme a break. Sunny Deol can decimate a full Pakistani armored division with his bare hands and screams. What will these people think of next”.

    The reason for that simple. Hindi movies are, by nature, downmarket and silly. English movies made by people like Boyle, even when they adopt all the conventions of the masala film, are not. Why? Because they have been validated by the “experts” as “life-affirming”, “glorious”, “celebration of the power of dreams”. So “Slumdog Millionaire” with its horribly cliched and predictable love story is a “monumental tribute to the power of love”. While Kuch Kuch Hota Hain with its equally cliched and predictable love story is “oooh sooooo bakwaas”.

    Even with all the stereotypes and all the plot contrivances, I would have still enjoyed “Slumdog Millionaire” if it had managed to, at any time, transcend its “masala” origins to become something greater, as Oscar winners ought to. As the “Dark Knight” transcended its comic book origins to become a fascinating study of true evil. As “City of God” goes beyond the depiction of poverty in Brazilian slums (which is never its primary morbid fascination) to become an epic about the cycle of extreme violence.

    In this respect, Slumdog is never greater than the sum of its parts. The production quality is top notch but then again even Ramgopal Verma’s turkeys are technically very accomplished. There is not much scope for acting. However Anil Kapoor, who is slowly coming close to legally becoming a werewolf with his ear ornament makes his mark everytime he unleashes his fake American accent, though you keep expecting him to say “jhakaaassss”.

    If there is anything unique about Slumdog is its use of the millionaire game show device to further its plot (even though the links between the plot and the questions are tenuous and sometimes extremely artificial), which I believe is one of the primary reason why people get caught up in the movie. The same reason they get caught up in reality shows like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and get up and cheer when a total stranger gets a million bucks. However once one goes beyond that device, there really is nothing exceptionally unique to Slumdog, nothing that warrants all the hype and hoopla.

    A big disappointment.

  37. Vaibhav Says:

    I guess, you have already gone over this. I apologise for posting it again.

    Thanks for blogging, and we really look forward to your posts.


  38. Egipt Says:

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