Saturday, January 24, 2009

Slumdog protests! I am not a dog...but a kutta.

Much has been made of Danny-boy shooting in an Indian slum, and what a departure that is from the Bollywood dream factory. The protests surrounding the film also focus on the same thing. "Why don't foreign filmmakers depict another aspect of India, besides the poverty?", and so on . To show or not to show it seems, is the question.

Then there is the name business...apparently, people living in the shanties seem more than little upset being referred to as a slum-dog. I suppose it could have been a literal translation from "suar ka kutta" or "gali ka kutta". But just as a brother can call a fellow brother "nigger" whereas anyone else calling a black man "nigger" is beyond offensive, there is something jarring about a Brit referring an Indian slumdweller with a translated 'dog' from the local parlance of 'kutta'. It just is. I wonder if The Slum Millionaire, or The Millionaire from the Slums, or maybe even The Curious case of a Slumdweller would have as much effect?

There are two movies within the Slumdog Millionaire (which I should be pleased about - you know, two for the price of one!). The first third with the subtitled Hindi, and the rest, with the very British English. Everything changes as the language changes. the faces, most obviously. The coarse and piercingly beautiful children are replaced by polished and still beautiful adolescents. The direct documentary of the city with sets and crafted locations. The drama with melodrama...what is "bizarrely curious (more on that later)" is the directorial decision of not letting us in on this transformation (why the hell is Danny-boy nominated for Best Director?). It is beyond patronizing to demonstrate a fondness for the subject, and then to abandon it with as much calous laziness as one would abandon an adorable street puppy once it grows into a mongrel. Dealing visually with the adorable labrador Marley is so much easier than doing anything with a gali ka kutta; no matter how tiresome he is, he looks so sweet!

Somewhere else, in the media coverage of Slumdog, I read about the recent depiction of the 'underbelly' of India being scratched - in film (like this movie), and in books like the Booker Prize winner Arvind Adiga's White Tiger. Unfortunate comparison, I thought, because the White Tiger is all about that transformation (and I disagree heartily with Guardian's Mr. Rushby on his take of the novel): How the rag became rich. Slumdog on the other hand wants to enjoy the times after the rag became rich, but gratuitously shows a little bit of the stinky rag because it was aesthetic and visually stunning.

To be fair, it seems Danny-boy is fond of his characters, and the city in which his characters live. What makes Bombay fascinating to him is that in any frame, the belly and the underbelly seem present simultaneously. Very cubist, I suppose. But there are separations, despite the closeness. The transition from Dharavi to Malabar Hill is not seamless, and that is where he remains trapped in his visual frame. Adiga's White Tiger slit a throat to cross that line. Danny-boy's Jamal just changed clothes, sat in a chair, and spoke immaculate English. There is something more fake in calling that real than all the Bollywood fantasies (with all the songs and dances) put together. My sister (link deliberately not provided) articulates this language business more eloquently and bluntly than I can. She said, "the decision to move from Hindi with subtitles in the first part of the film to British English with teenage actors was actually offensive. Indian English is a wonderful and playful genre on its own. For instance, which policeman in a Bombay police station would say 'this is bizzarely curious'!!!! That was just lazy or an oversight---but it demanded too much of a leap of faith and I could not suspend my disbelief and forget that the actors were speaking british english. That's when the film lost me"...

The ability to move from Hindi (or any other vernacular language) to English, and all the kichhdi (yummy mixed stew of rice and lentils) inbetween is probably the closest we come to blurring that class line. And yet, even there, you maybe given up with a slip in the accent, or an expression. To deny the characters, and the audience, the tricky drama that Jamal, and the rest of us play out and seek our thrills and frustrations in is an opportunity missed. Bombay and Jamal, his love and all else captured by Danny-boy become mere entries in his tourist diary - fascinating, beautiful and enjoyable, but also disingenuous.

There are two things I do hope happen in all this - that A R Rehman gets all the awards he can possibly get at the end of the awards season. I like his music. And second, that should there be a sequel, Shah Rukh Khan is allowed to ham it up, instead of Anil Kapoor. One needs the ham when working with the kutta.

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