Jan 28, 2009

Slumbi, race ka ghoDaa

If, like me, you wondered what the fuss about Slumdog Millionaire was, then you could blame the Indian film industry.

Here's why. I have spent about two and a half decades in the generous bosom of Indian films, or Hindi & Tamil films to be precise. We learnt us how to appreciate these movies. Training our neo-cortex to take in the bloodless dishum-dishum, where henchmen respectfully awaited their turn in being beaten up by a hero who was in a much lower weight category1, where Landsteiner's divisive blood groups freely mixed, and the locked up heroine always sprawled across the bed in a diagonal direction.

When we asked how does the hero know which hospital to go to?2, the wise answer came: the director must have told him.

Add to this situation, the parallel cinema movement of the 80s (which came with a governmental guarantee that women would get molested, children would die of hunger, and there would be no songs). These came into prominence once a year when the National Film Awards were announced.

Therein lies our Slumdog dilemma. When you grow up with two sets of film philosophies, one engineered for entertainment and escapism and the other for awards, you can't easily reconcile the former type winning critical awards. Our 'commercial' filmmakers knew what end point to get to, and how to get us there. What if they broke half-a-dozen natural laws in getting there? We didn't complain about them not getting any awards - that wasn't their purpose in life.

Then we became tired. Guilty even of this naach-gaana. We learnt dismissive words such as 'kitsch' to keep them at arm's bay. Mostly, we wanted a change. Especially from cringing at watching befuddled foreigners3 staring in songs sung by Kumar Sanu4.

My examples of how movies that perfectly meshed entertainment and mental stimulation came from Hollywood, especially many of the Academy Award winning films. Then we learnt how those gongs get marketed and manipulated. We discovered great movies that even the American public didn't like. We learnt to use our own eyes and minds.

Now, most mainstream Hindi film makers are deliberately ironic about what can only be termed as 'heritage'. The best directors now don't make movies like in the 70s and 80s, and thankfully so. That's a deliberate act of (r)evolution. Each year, we make some films, that in our own estimation, can stand up to any of the best that we've ever seen from the West.

So it's hard to go ga-ga about a film that embodies so many bad habits of the Hindi films of our growing years. Yes, the cinematography is good, the pace is far from leisurely, the kids are fresh, the background score is pulsating. But then, like the Bollywood tradition it channels, SDM suffers from the oldest groan in the book: what George calls the Sagging Second Half syndrome.

SDM makes a chinese bhel of the NP-complete Indian languages resolution problem, serves up one of the most ineffective Hindi film gangsters of all time, and ends with a song that even Sunny Deol could have choreographed better. But largely, it's the extra masala thrown in to suspense-ify the film: the live telecast of the TV show, the chance to break off post-question-pre-answer (hurt my quizzing sensibilities), meet me at VT (where - it's such a big station!) and so on. That made-for-all seasons answer bubbled up when we complained: oh, come on! how did that happen?. The answer was: it was written. In the screenplay."

A pity. It's a clever story. But we've seen the treatment before. My complaint to the Academy is: if this was the filmi angle you wanted, you should have told us before, no? We could have arranged for it earlier, cheap price only, better quality maal. The resulting attention that some of our best creatives have receive is welcome. But the affair has confused us5.

A final point:
To those here who complain about poverty and exploitation: break the give me. Our own movies are still full of exploitative material.
Danny Boyle, against whom much of these charges have been leveled, can probably take solace in one of the long standing traditions of the Hindi masala. That of the villainous angrez, whose backside must be kicked by the end of the movie, preferably when he's trying to escape with the gems via helicopter. Jai Bajrangbali to you.

No, one last, god-promise last point:
Leaving the primary role of film awards to reward movies aside, their legacy is to serve as some measure of the quality of films in a year and to serve as one source of recommendations for the future. This episode also reveals the utter paucity of trustworthy Indian movie awards, which is why any tizzy at the Oscars - a Hollywood exercise - gets our blood pressure high.

1. Matthew Schneeberger says it much better than I ever could.

1.: Unless of the Sanjeev Kumar mould.
2.: Not to be used for mai.n kahaa.n huu.n, which was largely rhetorical and equivalent to "good morning".
3.: Who wondered why Govinda was romancing Karisma Kap[oo|u]r instead of Himani Shivpuri, who was in his own weight category.
4.: That's Padma Shri Kumar Sanu to you.
5.: I didn't think much of last time's Oscar for Best Film either, for different reasons.


Anonymous said...

You may complain, but the bottom line is that armed with the same Hindi film-making cliches, Danny Boyle has served up an Oscar contender.
Others haven't.
The recipe for story telling is always the same:
1. Underdog hero (1)
2. Formidable odds (one for each act)
4. A dash of deus-ex-machina (as per taste)
5. Triumph over adversity (garnish)
Its the execution that matters. Don't feel bad that firangi directors have better execution, enjoy a good film when it is given to you :-).
Bon Appetit.

Unknown said...

Ah, the complaint isn't that the execution is better than locals, but that in (my) absolute terms, the execution isn't great enough. To be an Oscar contender, you need to release in LA, work the marketing m/c (walk in Fox Searchlight), and impress a sufficient number of Academy members.
Most good Indian films can't do that (budget, market etc), or don't want to do that.

SDM may be fresh cuisine for people across the Indian Ocean, but is dhaba fare for many of us here.

Ajay said...

Is the hype in India that out of control? :) Baradwaj Rangan, Amit Varma, now you have all felt compelled to put their view out that it's good entertainment and not Oscar material. As you say, they worked the right channels.

FWIW, (Benjamin Button is good but not great, haven't seen Milk yet, don't think any of the other nominees will measure up), The Dark Knight deserved a nod. No nods for film, director or script was disappointing.

Vedang said...

Slumdog Millionaire is a mediocre film at best. I don't understand all the crazy hype around it. Neither do I have any issues about 'India being shown in a bad light' or other such crap.
All I'm saying is that, had the same movie been made in Bollywood (scene for scene), and released in India first, it wouldn't have created even a single ripple.

Unknown said...

Ajay: we're all weighing in - all this hoo-haah over a film! That's us, I suppose.

Re: The DK - I wasn't surprised. Given that none of Chris Nolan's previous films have ever recd nominations for direction or script (IIRC), didn't expect any here. In the years to come, I know my DVD of the Prestige will need to be replaced and I won't ever have one of SDM :-)

Vedang: good 1st half, "oh no" 2nd - I agree with the rest. However, I see a film like Ghajini, rippling with ever bad indian masala film habit ever, make so much money, that I wonder.

Ajay said...

I remember thinking - "This is today's Rocky" when I first heard of the GG nominations. I found it funny to see that being echoed elsewhere.

AFAIR, Memento was nominated for original screenplay.

I was more hopeful this time for TDK because I thought Nolan had "broken through", at least judging by the media reaction.