When I chose to see slumdog millionaire, I felt certain it would disappoint. I feared that a screenplay scripted in english would handicap the film. Hearing sentences in english that ought really to be spoken in the native language often gives a movie an eerie quality. Since I've lived in India I've never been able to identify with many english-movie-made-in-english precisely because characters are speaking in english and I am expected to be intelligent enough to understand that they are only doing so because the movie is made for the global english speaking audience. Intelligent enough I may be, but nonetheless such movies have always failed to move. I've always felt subtitles will more than do the trick. I thought that was the defining difference between a movie like bend it like english where it is expected that characters living in London would speak english and bride and prejudice where it was downright ridiculous to find girls and mothers in amritsar speaking in english and traipsying in white satin nightgowns. In mr and mrs iyer too, the characters spoke in english, primarily because that was the common language that they could communicate in. The violence in the background didn't have the rowdies screaming at each other in english. A well made movie is always sensitive to the choice of language and cannot treat all languages as equivalent to each other. Years of conditioning has allowed me to watch bollywood movies and enjoy the magic in the music and discount their stupidity. But even with bollywood movies, I would shirk if the chiffon clad heroine is romancing her hero in english. There is a cultural oddity that I can completely define.
Thankfully, slumdog understood it. The movie used english- true. But it used it smartly. The characters evolved to be english speaking characters, either by eking out a living by posing to be tourist guides at the Taj Mahal that abounds with foreign tourists, by working in call centre agencies that teach you to speak good up being able to speak pretty decent english. It was gratifying to me that it wasn't an indian movie simply translated into english- but a movie in which the chosen language of choice continued to matter and thoroughly a product of circumstance.
When I realized it was a movie made by non-indians I became wary of characters saying extremely poignant things. It is true that as a culture we grow up with tolerance to a lot of bullshit. It is both the boon and bane of the society. It is a boon because we manage not to crumble and fall, but a bane in that we never find sufficient drive to build something sturdy out of ourselves. But I can vouch that most indians aren't philosophical. We say our prayers and pray to our gods in blind faith. We do not have time to analyze our lot in life and to develop philosophical views that make our lives easier. When a beggar says he feels full in his heart and cannot care about his stomach, he is saying it because of lack of choice, not because he truly believes it. He would still devour any decent meal and perhaps even sell his heart. Enough poor Indians sell their organs at measly prices. I couldn't digest Shantaram precisely because the characters were too articulate, too profound. Everyone was breaking into unnecessarily poignant speeches. Indians tolerate. But they do not necessarily adore their tolerance. We tolerate simply by compulsion.
Again,slumdog did not make this galling blunder.Slumdog has a very bollywoody script. The fact that the movie ends with the hero and heroine dancing to a filmi number is attestation to it. The less said about a.r rahman's music, the better. It is ill-fit.Slumdog tells the story of a man trying to unite himself with his childhood lover from the slums. In their years they've met, parted and met again, always believing that it is their destiny to be together.They have some sense of right and wrong. There are no black and white. Not all stealing is bad. Not all honesty is good. Destiny, a powerful theme in indian movies, is easy to identify with here. What is interesting of course is the way this simply theme is portrayed. By showing the entire story as flashbacks of how the man accidentally happens to know the answers to the questions of the show "who wants to be a millionaire", it makes for watching an entirely different kind of movie. Money and women, the policeman intelligently notes, are the reasons we make most of the mistakes in our lives. As the inspector tries to find out how the man knows all the questions for the answers and how disgraceful it is to want so much money, we realize how much the man has been risking his life to be united with his true love. In true bollywood style, we expect that he will. But slumdog could have well been a story based on a true life incident. It needn't be bollywoody at all, for none of the characters or events were exaggerated. And that I thought makes slumdog a cut above the rest.
Finally, I loved Salim's character with all his dilemmas. Who does he truly love ? Himself ? Money ? Latika ? Jamal ? Power ? His vacillating tendencies set the movie forward at every step. Jamal and Latika's destiny are actually written by Salim, who at every juncture chose to take the situation in his own hands while Latika and Jamal were mere puppets to what Salim decided he wanted most on a particular day. As a kid he chooses his brother but lets go of Latika. Later, almost jealous of his brother's longing for her, he claims Latika as his. Later still, he lets go of her in hunger for power. And finally he tragically lets go of himself. Were it not for his erratic decisions,slumdog would never have become a millionaire. And we see that Jamal and Latika are confused between self-preservation and their love for the other. They want each other, but not at the cost of their lives. It is this that brings the movie from filmi pedestals to reality. And they aren't sure how they can be together, alive, whole and happy. And each time they aren't brave enough to re-write destiny. And simply because its a bollywoody movie, or perhaps there is enough luck to go around in the real world, they do unite at long last. Salim, though had the courage to write his own story, yet not enough luck to live long enough. As the movie will repeatedly remind you, some things are written and some aren't.
In the end Slumdog isn't necessarily a meditation on Indian diaspora. But it definitely is a beautiful painting, that allows you to get a sense of what it is to be in india; to have faith and dreams and to gamble with them. And as with any beautiful painting, necessary artistic licenses must be taken, or otherwise it would just be a boring photograph in a auto-point-and-shoot-full-flash-mood that is simply all detail and no story.