Slumdog Millionaire – Unentertaining, Laughable and Annoying!
Slumdog Millionaire  

My problem with Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t have anything to do with what others have been criticizing it for – showing Mumbai as one dark underworld of crime- but that I found it simply, in one word, unentertaining. And laughable. And annoying. Wait a minute, that’s three words. But that sums up Danny Boyle’s ‘masterpiece’ for me. To say, as some muddled Western critics have been crooning – that this is the best of Bollywood and Hollywood is insulting both cinemas. Slumdog is supposed to have the ‘realism’ of Hollywood and the ‘masala’ of Bollywood. Really? If this is what a movie with the best of both cinemas looks like, I don’t want to have anything to do with it. I like my Mani Ratnam straight, just as I prefer my Martin Scorsese (or for that matter even Danny Boyle whose Trainspotting is a genuine masterpiece) straight up –neither shaken nor stirred.

For twenty or so minutes in the movie the three slum kids in the movie speak Hindi, and then abruptly switch to convent English (and also behave like convent brats). Next the Mumbai police and the gangsters are talking in Indian

English. The young hero’s accent itself slides between British English and Indian English. How are we supposed to ignore this? While we aren’t looking for realism, even a Bollywood wannabe like Slumdog needs to follow some ground rules of the masala genre: you don’t mess with the basic tropes of the genre such as slum kids speaking like upper class Mumbai children.

An audience around the world (presently cheering the movie) is blissfully unaware of this, and thinks they’ve been treated to a genuine Bollywood movie. The movie itself looks and feels like a foreigner’s idea of what a Bollywood movie is. But hey, Slumdog isn’t Bollywood. It isn’t even Hollywood. It’s the movie where even Irfan Khan gives a bad and boring performance for the first time-that’s the kind of movie Slumdog is.

The saving grace here is A.R Rahman’s soundtrack. This one is worth owning and listening to over and over again. Rahman’s two Oscar nominations for best score and best song are richly deserved. In retrospect, it makes sense that it falls on him to bring home India’s first Oscar (if you don’t count the Oscar to Satyajit Ray for lifetime achievement).

My favourite from the album is one not too many people are talking about (at least not yet): ‘Dreams on Fire’. ‘Dreams on Fire’, sung flawlessly by Suzanne. It matches the best work of the best pop composers today. It is as richly melodious and dreamy as an Andrew Webber Lloyd tune. And it’s romantic and moving. The harmony in the chorus is beautiful; the passionate lyrics are by Wendy Parr and Blaaze. The tune is present in another version –‘Latika’s theme’ – hummed by Suzanne.

‘Jai Ho’, sung by Sukwinder, Tanvi Shah, Mahalaxmi Iyer and Vijay Prakash, is justly celebrated. It’s inspiring. It doesn’t resemble anything Rahman has done before, so this marks a new high for the Mozart of Madras. Parts of the soundtrack feels derivative and familiar – of Rahman’s own previous work, and other popular genres. ‘Gangsta Blues’ sung by Blaaze, for instance, resembles so many hip hop tunes, while ‘Ringa Ringa’ (Alka Yagnik and Ila Arun) sounds distinctly familiar, though I can’t recall where I’ve heard it.

The other tracks are not songs but soundtracks. The catchiest one will undoubtedly be ‘Mausam and Escape’ which begins gently with guitars and then turns into a gripping score with a virtuoso sitar and percussion piece. ‘Liquid Dance’ a jugalbandi between voice and percussion – Madumitha and and Palakkad Sriram- sounds like other tracks we’ve heard before that takes a small bite out of familiar Hindustani repertoires. I was impressed with a track titled ‘Riots’, a combination of vocals (Madumitha) and instruments that feels like a genuine soundtrack. And the most important thing is that it doesn’t sound derivative.

The most important bit of information I can pass on to you is that the CD version released here is missing two celebrated songs by M.I.A. The song, a hip hop/rap number which was nominated for a 2007 Grammy is called Paper Planes and there are two versions of it in the original soundtrack. Before I say something about this track, you should (if you don’t) know something about the South Asian hip hop sensation M.I.A.

Mathangi Maya Arulpragasam is a Sri Lankan Tamil who grew up in London, taking the name MIA –Missing In Action. This young, sexy artist writes and composes hard hitting, subversive and incendiary rap songs with political overtones. Her albums, Arular and Kala (dedicated to her father and mother respectively) were listed as the best records for the years 2005 and 2007 by top music critics.

In the Slumdog CD edition available in India, she features marginally only on one song – O Saya, composed by Rahman and her for the movie. M.I.A has followed Rahman’s work closely over the years and felt inspired enough to record with him in Chennai when working on Kala. Rahman has described her as a great force in music. Her hit song Paper Planes (two versions) was left out of the Indian CD probably because of its controversial lyrics. If you’re keen on learning more about MIA, you can check her out on wikipedia; also You Tube features several of her videos including Paper Planes.

For me Slumdog the movie has simply meant discovering M.I.A. That’s the only nice thing I can find to say about it. The movie has been widely seen and admired (ten Oscar nominations? tsk tsk ) in America. What of its fate in India though? Can we really embrace it the way the rest of the world has? I really, really doubt it.

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