The increasing commercial success and critical accolades for Slumdog Millionaire continue to perplex and baffle me. When I originally saw the film in early December, I gave it a mixed review to be kind. In truth I loathed the film and found it morally repugnant, but with all the awards being showered on it, it made me question whether or not I missed something or totally misinterpreted the message.
For me the film was a simplistic love story wrapped around a contrived “rags-to-riches” plot device with character development done with a hacksaw, headache inducing visuals and editing, and an exploitative view of an exotic third-world locale. Yes, it had some interesting moments, and I certainly can see how on a surface level the colorful slums of Mumbai might appeal to Westerners thinking they were receiving some sort of lesson in Indian culture. The film’s cockeyed (and misguided) optimism certainly has struck a cord in these troubling times. But I can’t fathom all the undying love people have been proclaiming for Danny Boyle’s silly opus.
Overseas, outside of Boyle’s British homeland, the film has been receiving slightly more mixed reactions, and in India things have become violent on the streets of Mumbai where residents have been declaring the film slanderous, offensive and untrue. The few, and often ridiculed, detractors have called the film “poverty porn.” I don’t know if I would go that far, as I found the story too stupid to be that calculated and offensive. Meanwhile, it continues to lap up award after award, and curiously nowhere has the Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan received any kudos. Where’s the love for Loveleen? All credit has gone to Danny “ADD” Boyle, and even he forgot to thank his co-director when he scooped up the Golden Globe for best director.
Still, I can’t recall a time when I felt so out of touch with the majority of the movie-going world and critics. If it goes on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, it will be worst film ever to receive the honor. The majority of people have been nothing but ecstatic over this, at best mediocre and at worst totally manipulative, movie. But maybe it’s me. Maybe I just “don’t get it.” I felt compelled to explore deeper the appeal of the film. All paths lead me to one film that came before it, Mira Nair’s Salaam, Bombay!
Indian born Mira Nair is arguably one of the best female directors working today. Her Moonson Wedding and The Namesake are near-masterpieces, deeply heartfelt works beautifully photographed and masterfully constructed. Nair is one of those rare directors whose follies are even of the highest quality. Her overly opulent and scandalous Kama Sutra and her New Jersey-based white-trash soap opera Hysterical Blindness are nothing if not riveting to watch. Her 1988 debut film, Salaam, Bombay! was one that I had not seen until just now after all the comparisons to Slumdog Millionaire drove me to finally discover it.Nair’s film depicts a young orphan who finds his way to the streets of Bombay (Mumbai) and becomes a tea delivery boy in the slums. Nair made her film in a documentary-style, but remember, this was before documentary-style was synonymous with obnoxious shaky hand-held camera work. The camera’s eye here is steady, probing and deep, showing a vibrant and breathing cityscape that is beautiful and ugly and gleaming and crumbling all the same. Nair pulls no punches and invites the audience to become invested in the varying characters inhabiting the slums, many of them Dickensian flavored archetypes, but all achingly alive and real. Nair’s somber and melodic Bombay, unlike Boyle’s bombastic Mumbai, is a city awash in small intimate moments like a prostitute and her little girl inviting the rain-soaked tea boy in from the streets for a dry towel and some dancing. Sure, there are moments here too that could be called exploitative, but for Nair, these moments hit home. They are raw and real and captured with great lucidity by a native looking to shine a light on the plight of her people, not some outsider clawing his way to the top for praise.
There are no happy endings in Nair’s depiction of Bombay. Any love between two people is tossed asunder in the waves of transient human beings flowing through the crowded streets like violent flood waters. Her closing shot of the little boy alone, dirty, exhausted and overwhelmed by tears as he stares into the camera before the closing epitaph dedicates the film to all the children on the streets of Bombay speaks greater multitudes of truth about the human condition than Boyle’s ham-fisted and contrived “love conquers all…but only with money” message.
Love does not conquer all. Money is not power. Feeling something for someone half way around the world because you’ve been given a small glimpse into their life, the ability to feel empathy for another human being, the innate will to survive in any environment, these are the things that should be celebrated. Nair’s Salaam, Bombay! does just that in a very personal way. Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire views these things as second-rate plot devices designed to tug at our worn-out heart-strings and guises them under a maudlin mask of half-truths and false hope.
I didn’t fall for it, and neither should you.
Check out my original review of Slumdog Millionaire.
Written by David H. Schleicher
I’m going to have to disagree. You might say that my views are a little biased, since I am a huge Danny Boyle fan. I love all of his work. I saw this film way early in the day before it’s release. Before it’s nomination. Before it’s hype. I saw it when it was a movie by Danny Boyle, that didn’t even know if it would make it to the cinema.
I was definitely impressed. I saw it with my father, who has been to India. He spent a month in even the worst parts of India. He loved it as well. I don’t think that Danny Boyle was looking to depict an exact portrayal of India. He, himself, said that some of the depictions of India’s culture were “made up.” India in this case, was just a setting for the movie. Now, correct me if I understood wrong, but it’s like saying that the Darjeeling Limited did a poor job of showing India’s culture.
What I took for the film personally, was hope. I felt that the message Simon Beaufoy was trying to send was just that. Everything happens for a reason. As the film says “It is written.” I took so much hope from this movie and it made me feel (again personal) motivated. Even the most terrible of situations in your life happen because there is a greater purpose around them. I thought that message was loud and clear.
Now, I did get this from my friend. She said that she liked the movie, but the only let down was that when she had seen the trailers, they had advertised it as a “feel-good” movie. So when she went there, she wasn’t expecting what she received. I don’t know if that was your case, but I’m thinking that’s just bad advertisement.
Back to the movie. I felt the cinematography was strong, the actors were strong (being relatively new to the feature film world), the direction was amazing (again biased Danny Boyle fan), and the creativity in which the story unfolded was very impressive.
I don’t feel that comparing any movie, to any other movie should ever be justified. There are no original thoughts in Hollywood. The ideas have been made, but it’s how you interpret the story and deliver it to your audience, that is new every time. And I feel that Slumdog was successful.
Okay well I’ll stop babbling. 🙂
Romina, thanks for sharing, and don’t apologize for the “babbling”. Evidentally the film spoke to you in a personal way. –DHS
“I didn’t fall for it, and neither should you.”
I disagree with everything you say about the movie, but to be fair, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But your final line is ridiculous. You really shouldn’t be so pompous to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do, and how they should or should not react to Slumdog.
Billy, good job for calling me out on that line! I guess I got a little carried away. And to be fair, nobody seems to agree with me and that is fine. I wanted to prompt debate about the film and rile people up. –DHS
David: I completely disagree with you on almost every count. And be rest assured that when the film wins Best Picture (as is assured) it will win with landslide support from adoring voters. I don’t say that you missed any message, I just think your reaction is instigated by a failure to connect with the film emotionally.
Will it be the worst Best Picture winner ever, as you suggest? Not remotely, methinks. I n fact it will be one of Oscar’s best calls in years, even if it wasn’t my #1 film (it was #6 on my ten-best list). The worst winners were CIMMARON, MRS. MINIVER, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, FOREST GUMP, CRASH, TITANIC, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, TOM JONES, etc. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, which has rightly received spectacular reviews from the professional critics en masse, will be one of Oscar’s most distinguished moments in that category.
“You found the story too stupid…..” to be referred to as poverty porn. It’s funny, I feel just the opposite. This “story” was truly inspired. Th efilm showcased visceral and operatic intensity, emotional exhilaration and a convergence of deft cinematography, music and editing to convey a visionary display of what the medium has to offer. The acting throughout was top-rank.
This is what always happens when a film gets almost unanimous praise. But late disclaimers won’t dim this terrific movies’s luster. “Popular” can be beautiful too. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is such an instance.
David, please don’t in any way take my response as aggressive. I love your site, love your reviews, have mostly agreed with you, and will probably agree with you a lot more too in the future.
Sam, you know I always love it when you stop by, and I specifically sent this post your way because I knew you were of a differing opinion and would have something thoughtful and brilliant to say. You did not disappoint. –DHS
“Love does not conquer all. Money is not power.”
I could not agree more, and you are not alone: I posted a very similar piece at the url below that attempts to dig into the film’s problematic socio-moral message.
One thing I find interesting is that most retorts to our criticsms of SLUMDOG are along the lines of “Well, you wouldn’t have a problem with the film it were identical but made by an Indian director.” First of all, if SLUMDOG had been made by a southwest Asian and not a UK/US production team, it would not be identical to the movie currently being showered with accolades. Secondly, the narrative’s borderline squalid rendering of social mobility as a romanticized spectator sport would still remain. Great blog post!
Thanks, Jon! And thanks for sharing your scholarly and thoughtful post that probes deeper into the film’s messages than I have so clumsily done so far. –DHS
“Indian born Mira Nair is arguably one of the best female directors working today. Her Moonson Wedding and The Namesake are near-masterpieces, deeply heartfelt works beautifully photographed and masterfully constructed. ”
Oh give me a break. Lay off the crack pipe. That’s the most hysterical load of gushing hysteria I’ve heard about a director in years.
Wow, Billy, and I was paying you a compliment for your earlier comment and calling me out on my closing line to the post. Then you go all postal…that’s a shame. I thought everyone was entitled to their opinion—and if people can gush hysterically about Boyle, why can’t I about Nair? Still, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. That’s all I ever want people to do. –DHS
You’re right, you don’t get it.
Jimmy, I got “something”, I guess it just wasn’t “it”. –DHS
David, thanks for your comment on my post….I don’t think it’s you who doesn’t get it – it’s everyone else…People are getting carried away – the movie is strong in parts but the sum of the parts does not make a whole lot of sense….As an Indian, I wish people had access to some other India-themed movies that are true cinematic gems but unfortunately, they never had the backing of a Warner/Fox…..
Ones does wonder how this Slumdog would’ve faired without the media hype and studio financed publicity blitz. –DHS
Seems like Slumdog is really a love it or hate it film. You know I fall into the latter camp. I’m not sure I agree that Moonson Wedding is a masterpiece but I came in any case to voice my support !
James, thanks for the support. It’s funny, my posts have actually convinced some people to go see Slumdog Millionaire now, which is good because people should form their own opinions, but whenever I love a movie (take for instance There Will Be Blood), it’s like pulling teeth to get people to give it a chance.
Just to clarify, I said Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake are “near masterpieces” — that’s a huge difference in my book. Mira Nair has made no masterpieces (yet), but her films are crafted with a consistent quality and personal touch, and often are very moving. –DHS
You’re not alone in finding the phenomenal success of SM baffling. I don’t like it for a variety of reasons (http://thefilmwotiwatched.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/slumdog-millionaire-2008/) but I can see that it is pretty competent in many ways.
What I didn’t see was anything people could love in quite the way that the have. I have seen people scuffling in the queue AFTER buying their ticket just to be the first through the door. Heaven knows why- I guess that I just don’t know people that well at all!
Vern, I really really love love love love love your review of the film. I mean really love it. 🙂 –DHS
Thanks for the comment on my post David, and you know I’m with you on this argument. Reading down your comments though, it looks like us Grinches are the minority…and it saddens me a little bit. Not in the way that people don’t see your/our POV, but because it forces me to critically look at my views once more. Why can’t we join the crowd? What did we miss? Or are we better off this way?
Your comparison to Nair is also interesting; I didn’t really like Monsoon Wedding either, but I did see the beauty and reality in the film that could only be portrayed by someone with an Indian background. Perhaps it’s the fact that Boyle made the film that skews a lot of things out of proportion and it’s sticking out like a sore thumb to us?
Hope you won’t mind me linking to my Slumdog vs B. Button post: http://ayakuro.wordpress.com/2009/01/31/slumdog-millionaire-vs-every-other-2008-film/
Kuro, I know. I thought I might have been crazy, but if I am, at least it’s nice to know there is company. –DHS
Your post makes for a good and thoughtful read. Since I have not yet seen Slumdog I can’t comment on that movie. I did see Salaam Bombay, however, and I loved it. And you are most certainly entitled to argue that Mira Nair is the “greatest female director working today”. Based on that one film I might concur.
As for Billy’s declaration that Slumdog will take the Oscar and that “it will win with landslide support from adoring voters”…
I wonder how many people still don’t understand that voters need not have watched the films they vote for. Charleton Heston once said that he let his wife watch them and then he’d vote according to her reviews. But more likely voters who don’t take the time to actually view the nominated movies will roll with the popular buzz. Slumdog may indeed win but it will not mean it is actually the Best Picture of 2008!
Vargas, not having to watch the films nominated explains a lot about the Academy’s choices over the years. –DHS
Oops, sorry, that was Sam Juliano’s declaration (as quoted in my above comment). Billy had other equally interesting and provocative observations such as: “Lay off the crack pipe” and “…but to be fair, everyone is entitled to their opinion.”
Today, curious about all the hype, I went to see Slumdog Millionaire. I walked out of the theatre, still wondering what the hype is all about. Did I miss the message of this film? Is there a message? I found nothing hopeful or joyful about this movie. But then again, I don’t understand our societies love affair with game shows and reality T.V. Especially when winning is perceived to be a means to an end of poverty or human suffering. But, perhaps Danny Boyle does understand this love affair, and juding from the box office success of Slumdog, he has walked away a winner. Is Slumdog Millionaire worthy of an Oscar; I don’t think so. A movie is made to tell a story. Many stories are simply entertaining. But, when a story is told using the backdrop of real human suffering, such as the slums of Mumbai, then the storyteller has a moral obligation to educate, arouse awareness and create empathy for that human suffering. Slumdog falls short of that moral obligation. American audiences should not need or want their exposure to human suffering “sugar coated” with a contrived and improbable storyline, bordering on explotation of the children of the Mumbai slums. Perhaps if all the movie goers will match the price of their ticket with a donation to the International Red Cross or the Indian Red Cross Society (http://www.indianredcross.org), then Slumdog Millionaire will have served a purpose.
Hmmm, that’s an interesting suggestion. I like the idea of both lovers and haters of the film coming together for a good cause. –DHS
Love may not conquer all, but money certainly is power. Especially in the good ol’ US of A. And certainly in India where people who live in the slums have no power much less a voice.
My reasons for liking this film concern the structure more than anything else. It’s a very effective use of flashback that moves the story forward. Without the love story, though, you have no story, and without the gangster side of life in India, you have no truth. How is that any different than perspectives on American life?
The movie is adapted from a novel, “Q&A.” I haven’t read it, so I’ve wondered if most of the material in the movie, i.e. love story vs. gangster story, is in the novel.
I’ve seen some reports about the reception in India — my understanding is that most Indians don’t want the slum side of life to be realistically depicted in movies because of the shame involved. Perhaps it should motivate them to do something about the slums, if possible. But then “The Constant Gardner” really didn’t bring a change to the slums of Nairobi.
Cinda, interesting observations. I think you’re definitely on to something concerning the film’s massive appeal (especially in the US of A). –DHS
This is the best review I’ve ever read on SM, I thought I was the only one who felt this movie was a pile of utter crap. Annoying camera angles, pathetic acting (Dev Patel could never ever fit into the role of a Street kid, he could have acted as second Gen Indian in the UK but beyond that he was terrible). One of the silliest story lines slum boy, wierd show anchor, crazy police officers, set in a slum then moving to the Taj travelling over a train!!! like it was next door and all the worst Danny could conjure up throw in the mix. This is at best a movie for the uninitiated westerner who has a sheer morbid curiosity about India.
Rohan, thanks for reading. They did make it seem like the Taj was “right down the road” didn’t they? That was the least of the film’s problems, though. –DHS
David, I can understand your position and I too felt a certain moral indignation while watching Slumdog, but after reflection I came to the view that despite its faults it is a great movie. Let me paraphrase what I have written elsewhere.
Yes, the ‘quiz show that stopped the nation’ trope is imposed and corny, the resolution clichéd, the genuine pathos of the older brother Samil’s sacrifice lost, the drama undermined by the love conquers all ending, and the dance number as a final coda misplaced and even repugnant. But the movie is still a dazzling cinematic experience: the cinematography, the editing, and the sound production as integral as the inspired direction. The acting of the young people and the kids is as solid as you could wish. In a scene that deals with the mother’s death, the visual terror and the cacophony is loud and intense, and the adrenalin that fuels the kids’ flight is palpable, with the fast editing, the angled and off-center shots, all amplifying the brutality of what is happening on the screen; the abrupt stop as the kids’ escape is blocked by a car with an annoyed and indifferent better-off passenger cocooned behind the closed windows; then the boys are off again until the final soaring aerial shots that move from the particular to the general – this is not a single story but one of many. The blinded kids don’t escape their fate. Jamal and Latika escape only because Samal has a gun and uses it.
A Hollywood movie is not going to save India, but it can bring an immediacy to the plight of people living marginal lives in dire poverty, and perhaps widen awareness and understanding. A background story on the writing of the screenplay by writer Simon Beaufoy should be of interest: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2008/dec/12/simon-beaufoy-slumdog-millionaire.
Tony, thanks for stopping by and sharing that link. It’s always interesting to read the back-stories behind making a film. Obviously, I don’t agree with your well presented opinion, and it’s the cinematic style you describe that I found particularly unengaging. –DHS
Wow, thank you for the review. It’s not easy finding good critiques of Slumdog Millionaire, and I couldn’t agree more with what you say. The first half (which is problematic) and the second half (which is just silly) put together really troubled me. The (distressingly) easy presentation of “violent brown men,” the “victimized brown woman,” the “innocent children,” the “communal violence”–it was orientalism 101… I can see why the movie makes people feel good, but it’s upsetting to see so many people feeling good and overlooking the problematic politics of it. So thank you for your comments!
Chika, I can’t believe that so many people are able to “feel good” after watching it — they seem to be distracted by the style and energy of it. Thanks for stopping by with your eloquent comment. It’s reassuring to see some people are as troubled as I am by the film’s success and message. –DHS