By Naomi Orton, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – After walking away with an impressive eight Oscars last month, Danny Boyle’s cinematic crowd pleaser opened in Rio this weekend. This rags to riches fairytale yarn appears on the surface to be quite a departure from his previous works of ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Shallow Grave’. However, like any popular fairytale, there’s a generous helping of sinister characters and suffering amongst the sugar and sentimentality.
The film opens with teenage Jamal, played by newcomer Dev Patel, preparing to answer the final question on the Indian version of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’. But how has this professional tea-maker from one of Mumbai’s most deprived slums managed to get to this stage of the game? Luck? Destiny? Genius? Creepy, corrupt game show host Prem Kumar suspects foul play and hands Jamal over to India’s police force for a brutal interrogation.
As Jamal is probed by police his story unfolds. We accompany him on a series of flashbacks into his vivid and disturbing past and a vision of a country undergoing dramatic change. This retrospective reveals a childhood battling with adversity and how each one of life’s cruel blows dealt him an answer on the way.
Journeying through his many struggles and hardships, we are buoyed along by A. R. Rahman’s energetic, Oscar winning soundtrack. As well as ‘Jai Ho’, which won ‘Best Original Song’ the soundtrack also includes the instantly recognisable ‘Paper Planes’ from M.I.A. which, lyrics aside, is quite an upbeat number.
‘Slumdog’ is an enjoyable, undemanding melodrama. Essentially a triumph of good over evil; malevolent opponents are periodically eliminated in order for the angelic Jamal to attain what he so rightly deserves.
Nevertheless, Jamal reveals that he is not motivated by money, and his happiness does not depend on winning the big prize. In the current climate of economic doom mongering, his is a welcome maxim.
Despite breaking box office records and being greeted with a rapturous reception in Britain and the U.S, the film has been marred by controversy.
Initially, it was not nearly so warmly embraced by India itself where posters were torn down and pictures of Boyle burnt. It was only following the film’s performance at the Oscars that it was finally claimed by the country, described by national news channels broadcasting the event as ‘a victory for India’.
A film made largely by outsiders, it has inspired much debate as to whether it is ‘authentically Indian’. Although based on the novel ‘Q&A’ by Indian writer and diplomat Vikas Swarup, the film was adapted by Simon Beaufoy, a British screenwriter better known for ‘The Full Monty’.
Traditional Bollywood films focus on escapism rather than realism and the film’s portrayal of India has attracted criticism. Bollywood icon Amatabh Bachchan (watch out for him in the film!) was one of the first to speak out, writing on his blog that:
“If SM projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.”
In an interview on Indian TV, SM star Frieda Pinto pointed out that the film does also show India’s growing economy and that the representation of the country is therefore not entirely negative.
Recent Brazilian films ‘City of God and ‘Tropa de Elite’ have likewise chosen to concentrate on the more gritty reality of life for many Cariocas, and have garnered a certain amount of international attention.
Xan Brooks on www.guardian.co.uk describes ‘Slumdog’ as ‘City of God as rewritten by Charles Dickens’ and it’s easy to draw certain parallels.
The depiction of India’s police force as both disinterested in the welfare of it’s people and capable of horrifying violence is equally as unflattering as that of Rio’s police force in both ‘City of God’ and ‘Tropa de Elite’.
But why does the western world seem to have such a healthy appetite for uncomfortable viewing and so often from a comfortable distance?
‘Slumdog’ has reportedly boosted Mumbai’s slum tourist industry, much to the chagrin of residents. ‘Favela tours’ are also commonplace in Rio, but can there be any real benefit of tourists getting closer to the slums? Or is this simply voyeurism?
Critics have gone as far to coin the term ‘poverty porn’, suggesting that ‘Slumdog’ offers viewers a cheap thrill, taking a superficial, unreflective look at life in Mumbai’s slums.
Amidst such accusations and perhaps most sadly of all, it emerges that this life is still a reality for two of it’s child stars, despite the commercial success of the film.
However, such seemingly negative publicity does not seem to have dissuaded cinema audiences, at least in Britain and the U.S. Will Brazil see the same large turn outs?
N.B. As the film switches between Hindi and English it is necessary to have some knowledge of Portuguese (or Hindi) in order to appreciate more than just the cinematography in a Brazilian cinema. The film is certainly beautifully shot though, for which cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle received a well deserved Oscar.