Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Bollywood at heart

The West has never really come to terms with Bollywood. They have grudgingly come to accept that it is wildly popular, and that it has a market base with whose potential is still just starting to be unlocked. However, very few have been able to accept the unique genre constraints that come attached with this popularity. Hong Kong action movies, it could be argued, are every bit as formulaic as an average Bollywood flick, but they were embraced by Hollywood in the early ‘90s and still continue to be a key influence on their films. Somehow, Bollywood has not proved to be such an easy fit.

Indians have also become more defensive about their cinema. A decade ago the refrain was more likely to be a fatalistic ‘We cannot change’; it has now become a defiant ‘Why should we change?’ Commercial reasons have a lot to do with this – when you have a potential audience of a billion, it makes sense to keep making movies exactly the way you always have, instead of adapting them to Western tastes. Like call centres queries re-routed to Bangalore, like retractions from the Australian Cricket Board, the expectation is that the West will just have to come around to accepting the power of numbers and a growing economy. Which may not be the greatest recipe for artistic growth, but hey, it’s an industry. What do you want, what do you expect?

Bollywood movies have maintained an undeniable consistency for decades - stretching back, some would argue, almost to the time of their inception. Technical advancements aside, most situations, storylines and character types are identifiable (and meant to be so). Identifiable and, to the surprise of many in India and abroad, a potential source of imitation. Baz Luhrman, a melodrama junkie from the start, weighed in with the overrated Moulin Rogue, a movie more Bollywood than most Bollywood movies are. Bride & Prejudice perpetuated the dubious genre of NRI Bolly kitsch. And now, with 8 Oscar wins, we have Slumdog Millionaire, a movie set in India, with more than one Bollywood actor in it, and incorporating, in more ways than is apparent at first glance, the spirit (if not the style) of a Bollywood movie.

Slumdog starts with the most vedantic premise of all – ‘it is written’. Any producer here would agree with that. This is the philosophical basis of masala – once the end is a forgone conclusion, it’s the journey that matters. Wild coincidences, inconsistencies in plot and mood, characters going from funny to weepy to violent – all written. Slumdog, like any good Bollywood movie, does not attempt to justify these wild twists beyond a point. Instead, it revels in them, defying the audience to say real life is not like this. Despite its visually accurate depiction of Mumbai’s sprawling ghettos, this is not a film centered around hard reality (See Salaam Bombay for an interesting contrast). When reality (or what passes for reality in a movie) is not required – like explaining how two slum kids suddenly start speaking in English an hour into the movie – it is dispensed with. ‘Reality’ thus becomes just another ingredient in the mix, a minor factor soon to be dwarfed by the biggest player of them all, destiny. As with countless Bollywood movies that suffer from similar quasi-amnesiac tendencies, there is nothing wrong in this approach, beyond the very real peril of viewing these movies as accurate social or historical documents.

India, both as a source of cinema and as a country (and, it must be said, a idealistic construct in Western minds) seems to confer a certain freedom on visiting filmmakers. It gives them the elusive opportunity to be able to tell their story unencumbered, without having to make it as credible as if it would have to be if it were set somewhere else, and without burdening it with ironic, intellectual or philosophical devices. Of course, there are movies made here that are not melodramatic, not predictable, that defy audience expectations. But if one is honest, it’s fair to say that these films are not the norm. Bollywood has little use for distancing devices, even less for irony. Neither does Slumdog Millionaire. The Slumdog phenomenon (and it is a phenomenon, meritorious or not) is proof that audiences and critics abroad can be receptive to a brand of high-emotion, destiny-driven drama that questions little but entertains whole-heartedly, the kind of cinema that continues to work in this country after six decades. But it’s also important to make them feel like they’re on the outside, looking in. Like Colonel Nathan Jessup, they expect you to ask them nicely.

Yesterday, in his Oscar speech, Danny Boyle especially mentioned the choreographer of the ending dance sequence. While I may be reading too much into this (he forgot his name in the credits, and wanted to apologize), I think the seriousness with which this part of the film has been handled gives us a clue as to how it should be viewed. It seems clear that this sequence, set to the thrilling ‘Jai Ho’ and as unabashed in its exuberance as any great Bollywood dance sequence, is not presented as an end credits novelty, unlike, say, the bloopers in a Jackie Chan movie. Everyone comes back and dances – the dead, the living, the young and old – and their moves are via Bollywood, not Hollywood musical. The story may have concluded, but this is the real ending. I think this sequence is emblematic of how this film sees itself – a Bollywood movie at heart (or whatever that represents). Call it globalization. Lately, we have seen a growing number of Indian movies which limit their soundtracks as a background to the action, defying age-old Bollywood traditions of all songs being sung by the characters on screen. Meanwhile, the West is finally managing to say ‘song-and-dance sequence’ without sneering. It's catch-up time all around.


Ishan said...

Very well written, as always. You continue to be my favourite blog author.

However, couple of mentions on the content of your post. Both are subjective and only express my perspectives and understanding of the movie.

1. Rather than 'destiny', I prefer the word 'hope, in the context of this movie. I would like to trade the general conclusion of the movie-'its all written in the stars' with my view on it-'never lose hope - miracles can happen.' Considering that it is cinema, I think that we can make a few allowances with regard to exaggeration. Shawshank Redemption comes to mind - an unrealistic prison escape that brilliantly captures the spirit of hope.

2. The other point is centred around our understanding of 'reality' in Indian cinema. Some of the issues highlighted in the movie, most notably that of poverty, is a bitter reality in India. We have, on most occasions, made movies centralling around a rich burgoise Indian family with classical Indian virtues and values, and I think that there is no shame in highlighting some of India's social and economical realities. Its a bitter pill to swallow, but its definitely a real pill. Everyone knows that Mumbai the city is beyond what has been depicted in Slumdog - infact, I do not think that there should be any arguement on that. As for the proficiency of the English language by Jamal, again let us make a small allowance for that. Paul Haggis certainly exaggerated in his depiction of the American underbelly in crash, but the film makers awareness and sense of responsibility in uncovering the American veil was worthy of appreciation. Much like Boyle's.

Rest of it made perfect sense. Loved the part at the end, where you mention the crossing of paths that is happening between Western and Indian film-makers. Cheers on yet another wonderful and sensible contribution.

a fan apart said...

Thanks man. I'm all for exposing social inequities through cinema, and i wish that our own filmmakers did it more often, even to the degree that is shown in slumdog. just that in Slumdog i felt that each issue - religious violence, corruption, urban poverty - was picked up and passed over quickly, not elaborated upon. maybe this was what the director required in order to keep the pace ticking along, and there is no moral flaw in such an approach. just felt that reading it as a critique or an accurate description may be misleading.

as for hope, sure, why not. am not writing off either of these terms as the basis of boyle's cinematic approach. my aim was to show how closely he has approaprriated an approach which has flourished in India for ages.