Feb 28, 2009

Slumdog: the final verdict

The best case for Slumdig Millionaire I have heard, from my friend Nick Hornby:

It’s perfectly possible not to enjoy Slumdog Millionaire, of course – nothing appeals to everybody, and I didn’t have enough invested in the love story for the film to lift me as much as it seems to have lifted others. But typically, when the success of a book or a film or a piece of music baffles the liberal intelligentsia, then that success will usually be put down to the cynicism of the makers, or the depressing ignorance of the consumers... It would be nice to think that our artier film-makers and more literary novelists could look at ‘Slumdog’ and steal a few of its underpinnings. Is energy, for example, as vulgar an attribute as many of them seem to believe? And is coherent structure really such an awful thing? On the evidence of the LRB letter, though, our intellectuals are more likely to sneer. I’m sure they’re all very clever people, but they can be terribly dim sometimes.

Many movies and novels could do with a little more vulgar energy — The Reader springs to mind. And the structure of Slumdog was the only time I can remember enjoying, rather than enduring, flashbacks in a movie. I was happy when it came out. I could see the point of it. A stalwart addition to a decent year at the movies, I thought — a good midfielder, a dependable mid-range success story. I just never for a second imagined it would clean up at every awards ceremony western civilization has to offer. 7 Baftas and 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, depresses me for some reason. It's not a bias against popular movies: I didn't feel this way when Titanic won, or Lord of the Rings. For all its flaws I think The Dark Knight should have got a best picture nod. And it is nothing short of painful to me that movies like Knocked Up never stand a chance. But Slumdog has an offputting cunning to it, I think: come see this small, scruffy, underdog movie from the Indian subcontinent, complete with Hindi subtitles, and — guess what — it slips down as easily as the latest Janet Jackson video. There's no earthly reason why movies set in other countries have to be dour and grainy and foreign-filmish — sitting through Gomorrah is not mandatory —  but I like a little bit of foreignness, some detail that makes you sit up. There was some shots of India in The Darjeeling Limited (an otherwise bad movie) that looked as strange and stunning as a lunar landscape. I never got anything like that in Slumdog. Foreigners aren't so foreign after all, it said. They watch the same junk, they dream the same dreams. Do they? One thing Danny Boyle said in interview stuck with me, about how unexpectedly non-aspirational the slum dwellers all were, despite their crushing poverty. The westerner expected revolution, revolt; what he found was good-humored acceptance. Something to do with Hinduism? The caste system? Who knows, but that was interesting to me. I wish he'd made a movie about that — or which at least included that. It would have made his hero's arc all the more startling.

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