Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle, Lovelen Tanden (2008 UK India) Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Medhu Mittal
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 26 Jan 09 Ticket price £6.65
Disneyfication of India
Watching the early establishment sequence in Slumdog Millionaire (SM) where we are introduced to the Mumbai slum background of Jamal and Salim the tone the look and style of the film immediately referenced Disney and the Jungle Book. The doe eyed innocence and the stylised quality of innate goodness with which Jamal is imbued by script and camera suggested a filmic reincarnation of Mowgli. SM on reflection presented as a farrago of borrowed qualities taking its characterisation from a Disneyfied Kipling, its narrative form from Dickens via Lionel Bart and its structure from the pop video. No wonder it’s so popular. But this mare’s nest of creative inputs makes it a film driven by production values and stylistic gloss, abetted by its intercut structure, rather than a film with the energy and authenticity of voice that characterised some of Danny Boyle’s (DB) earlier work such as Train Spotting. And the price paid for this treatment is a cheapening of a country and its culture rather than a deepening of understanding.
The current solution to story structure adopted by much of the mainstream film Industry is to construct film narrative along parallel strips of action comprising of a number of ‘presents’ or different ‘sheets of past’. The director is then in a position to use montage to exploit and manipulate the viewers, through the shifting of the film’s focus. The parallel story structure also provides an endless stream of opportunities for directors to energise their films through the manifold cutting opportunities offered by the manifold permutations of time and place. This is precisely the structural solution adopted by DB in MS.
This form of filmmaking takes its current inspiration from the pop video which adopted the form of twin or multi track parallel visuals to manipulate and hold attention in the adolescent market place. The rapid cutting style solves the problem of keeping the audience attention. The opening sequences of SM intercut the Game Show with the torture chamber, deliberate choice of radically contrasted settings which as well as getting the film of to dynamic start also gives a message that it is the director who will pull all the strings: there is not going to be much for the audience to think about.
As is it is in the beginning so it is throughout SM. The film cutz from the Game Show to the interrogation to the long back story which links all the story tracks. The problem with the structure is that it never allows any of its sections the space to develop organically; the sections are all reduced to being component parts of the SM machine. Mechanically scripted and played out by the actors so that the SM’s final scene can be delivered in its wrap. In consequence The Game Show and the torture /interrogation sequences are little more than leaden badly acted parodies. Except for their role as parts of the SM machine, they have little intrinsic value. Of course the structure of the film is used to hide this bare mechanicality as audience attention is manipulated by the way the film is cut. But even so the continual cutting does start to obey the laws of decreasing returns, as the cuts back and forth to and fro became increasingly predicable and automate.
The back story itself the childhood and adolescence of Jamal and Salim is simple cod Dickens. It is supplied. naturally, with appropriate villains, an evil Mumbai ‘Fagin’character, and realistic settings. Like the sets in the musical Oliver, the SM settings, slums, modern day Mumbai, have the ‘wow’ factor but no context. The SM settings are no more than theatrical backdrops which have become the dark side of a world cinema whose production lust for confective atmosphere drives producers and directors around the world in search of ever more authentic sexy locations for the gaze of the audience, that lend themselves to decontextualisation. For instance although Indian audiences will understand the nature of the mob violence that kills Jamal and his brother’s mother, Western audiences will not understand that these were Hindu led pogroms against Moslems and that this is critical to knowing some of the social strains defining India. Although it exploits the real, the real is not DB’s concern any more than it is Disney’s concern in Jungle Book. What we are watching is in fact are the forces in play in the Disneyfication of India. India, a land of poor but essentially happy people, where the bad people get their comeuppance and the good folk live in a haze of music and happy endings.
As SM develops it is clear that the music and style are heavily influenced by the pop video and in the last sequence what had been threatening to happen all through the film finally takes place; the film breaks out , like a butterfly, and shows itself as pure pop promo. As In Zatoichi its an all singing dancing finale which castes all that had gone before it as a sort of pupae for its ultimate destiny.