It is deeply encouraging to see a film shot in India about Indian characters and focusing on the issue of poverty receiving widespread critical and commercial acclaim. The film’s best picture Golden Globe award has finally confirmed the mainstream reputation of the UK film maker, Danny Boyle. It is perhaps a recognition which he has been unselfishly seeking ever since he made ‘Shallow Grave’ back in the nineties. Danny Boyle famously turned down the directorial reigns of the fourth Alien film, a wise decision on reflection as the film was plagued with creative differences between the eventual director, Jean Pierre Jenuet and the leading lady, Sigourney Weaver. Boyle’s rejection of the Alien franchise, a hugely successful commercial property owned by Fox, seemed to be somewhat of a snub, underlining the artistic integrity of a director who did not feel any obligations to compromise or even ‘sell out’ on what he felt was a very personal approach to making films. Danny Boyle’s persistency to make films on his own terms is something to be admired but unlike most UK film makers, Boyle has been very fortunate in being able to consistently secure financing for the kinds of genre films he wants to make.
’28 Days Later’ signalled a real shift in terms of financing, with the film backed by Fox Search Light Pictures, it was Boyle’s first fully financed ‘American’ film. Though it was shot in the UK, ’28 Days Later’ borrowed heavily from the zombie and post apocalyptic Hollywood genre films, suggesting that Boyle had come to grasp quite quickly that no British film maker with international ambitions could sustain a career solely by making films that catered for an exclusively indigenous UK audience. ’28 Days Later’ was well received in the US and steadily made ground, becoming an instant cult success, which subsequently influenced Fox Search Light to green light the sequel, ’28 Weeks Later’, the follow up to Boyle’s hybrid and a film that is perhaps one of the most politically astute of the British horror films made in the last ten years. After the critical high of ’28 Days Later’, Danny Boyle returned back to his origins, directing ‘Millions’, a relatively low budget enclosed social realist drama that seemed to leave critics slightly unimpressed.
Boyle’s most recent film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is also his most ambitious and global film to date. Every year due to the euphoria and the hype generated by an awards season full of arbitrary and redundant gestures, a select few films are pushed to the foreground, usually for reasons to do with Hollywood desperately wanting to promote its humanist, liberal agenda. Such has been the case with an over rated film like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, a film that is being celebrated for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps for American critics, Boyle’s rags to riches Dickensian fairytale is exactly the type of cathartic film making they want to champion as it seems to embody the underdog qualities of a piece of cinema that can sometimes become surprisingly effective at certain awards ceremonies. Boyle’s work has never really had any concerns for realism and he certainly dispenses with such seemingly British cinematic preoccupations by embellishing the journey of Jamal and Salim, two poverty stricken street kids who live in the most wretched of conditions. To distance himself from the criticism concerning his perpetuation of certain culturally offensive stereotypes and wholly conventional exotic picture postcard imagery of the Indian landscape, Boyle has repeatedly stressed that his film in no way sets out to offer any kind of ideological critique, it is simply a ‘fairytale’. Such a naïve and defensive position underlines how Boyle and his scriptwriter, Simon Beaufoy, cannot help but depend upon familiar scenarios and characterisation to ensure their film about India is not rejected by audiences who are still suspicious of Bollywood as a credible film industry.
Most critics have been generous in their praise of the film’s feel good nature but what many of them seem to overlook is the stark fact that Bollywood has been busily and expertly making this kind of ‘Masala’ film for the last 30 years or so. The mere ‘rags to riches’ narrative idea is overly familiar to most fans of Bollywood cinema and the emotionally manipulative journey they take from the childhood sectarian violence of the streets to the skyscrapers of the new Indian society is stale, predictable and oddly reminiscent of an old fashioned style of underdog film immortalised by the legendary figure of Amitabh Bhachan. Not only does the film rely upon tired formulaic conventions that characterise the dated ‘masala’ genre, Boyle’s representation of Indian society and its people are sadly tinged with the most stereotypical of visual imagery that has been repeated endlessly by films made by mainstream Hollywood and British directors. Of course, it is a ‘feel good’ movie, from a westerner’s perspective, it makes one feel comparatively good about their own life when compared to the underclass of supposed slumdogs that hopelessly fill the streets of Mumbai.
India continues to be positioned in mainstream Hollywood films as the exotic other and no film about India is complete without featuring a scene at the steps of the Taj Mahal, an icon of tragic beauty that is meant to fill the spectator with a sense of wonder at the cultural richness of the country. Though this may be true, what many film makers actually result in doing is filming culturally significant landmarks that reduces the vastness of India to a few friendly postcard images that all point to a touristy hunger for yet more ridiculous ‘exoticness’. Some critics, rare that they are, have picked upon Boyle’s reversion to culturally offensive stereotypes and imagery especially in the childhood sequences at the beginning of the film in which we come across a sadistic child abductor who uses orphans and homeless children for exploitative purposes.
Why is it that the kinds of films made about India by western film makers either focus on the non offensive figure of Gandhi, the affects of partition or street children? By constantly focusing on the negative aspects not only presents a distorted picture of Indian society, it also offers a very crude snapshot that cannot help but generalise and trivialise the lives of an underclass. Also, it is glib and dishonest to even suggest that in order for the underclass to liberate themselves from the inequalities of society they must aim to appear on unreal game shows like ‘Who wants to a Millionaire?’ in the hope of achieving some kind of social mobility. Of course, such a suggestion could never exist in a film that is foremost trying to entertain us as best it can.
The formidable Bollywood actor, Irfan Khan, shows up in a few scenes as a police inspector who interrogates Jamal with a favourite Bollywood ‘B’ movie torture technique. Once again, such a cynical and lazy caricature of the Indian police is straight out of one of the many poorly directed Bollywood films that is typically rounded upon by critics each week yet such a stereotype serves no real purpose other than functioning as an obvious narrative device, triggering flashbacks. Irfan Khan is perhaps the most versatile actor of his generation but his presence, though commanding and sincere, is completely wasted in a film that amounts to nothing more than a series of cynically constructed, hyperbolic moments.
Luckily Dev Patel does not appear in as many scenes as you first assume because his performance is not only unconvincing, it smacks of a feeling that here is an actor who is simply trying his best not to act but to look as though he is a performer. Dev Patel's one dimensional performance is frustrating in the way he gawps his way through the film as though he has just been told that the next season of 'Skins' promises to be just really, really good. Boyle took a risk by casting a relative unknown, perhaps to do with budget constraints, but Dev Patel is supposed to a kid from the slums yet he appears to clean cut and 'westernised'. The love story between Jamal and Latika is trite and very sentimental, clearly lifted out of your typical overblown Bollywood musical, and the compulsion to finish with a horrendously choreographed dance sequence at the train station is simply hollow in its tribute to the enduring tradition of the 'song and dance' convention.
It also seems unfair that the composer A R Rahman is only now being recognised by Hollywood yet he has been busy working in the Indian film industry for little over ten years, producing some beautifully arranged compositions and film scores for an array of mainstream and independent films. He certainly brings a depth and soul to the film but his work on ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is relatively competent when compared to his considerably superior scores for recent Bollywood films like’Jodha Akbar’ and ‘Swades’.
Ultimately, this is a film that will be reappraised once the hype has faded away and may be viewed in the mediocre light in which it actually appears but at the moment, it seems as though Hollywood’s infectious obsession with the story of the underdog is one undeniably linked to their own myths, especially the one about the American dream and triumph over adversity, so when you think of ‘Jamal’, think of ‘Rocky’, and think of ‘Maximus’, because Hollywood loves to embrace an anti hero in such despairing times.