Wednesday, 14 January 2009

slumdog millionaire (d. danny boyle, w. simon beaufoy)

There's a short interview on the Guardian website with Boyle, where he says that he doesn't want Slumdog to become this year's Mamma Mia, suggesting that any audience looking for a feelgood movie is going to find the first hour of the film hard work. It seems to me, in saying this, he's identifying the complex conundrum at the heart of the work, which we'll get to in a moment.

Firstly, though, let's talk about the grade. Boyle also mentions in the interview how much he loves digital film making. It's not every day you watch a film and get excited by the grade, more or less the last thing to occur in the film-making process. After the footage has been shot, assembled, sound mixed, comes the grade, the process whereby the pictures themselves are enhanced and an overall look can be imposed. Slumdog is a luscious visual fest. Chillies glow hyper-red; the golden hue of an evening interview room is hyper-golden. This is a world saturated in colours which seem larger than life. The colours heighten everything, giving the film a vigorous, energetic beauty which matches Anthony Dod Mantle's percussive cinematography. Boyle manipulates all the technical tools at his disposal to impressive effect, cajoling the technology to drive the narrative forwards.

The narrative is one of those too-good-to-be-true stories, both a screenplay and a marketing perfect storm. It's impossible not to admire the chutzpah of Celador: having planted themselves on the film-making landscape through the money laid by their golden goose, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, they then discover a novel manufactured entirely around their product, and turn it into a blockbuster which not only works cinematically but also re-invigorates a flagging core brand. The simple structure of each answer Jamal giving as he climbs the Millionaire ladder tying into his personal history is a wonderfully effective piece of storytelling, allowing the narrative to flit backwards and forwards in time. Beaufoy lashes this into shape, keeping the pace up, even if the film descends towards cliche in its treatment of the fraternal relationship. In the list of Slumdog's antecedents, The Full Monty is the fairy godmother. Having learnt from the rather more downbeat Yasmin, Beaufoy has gone back to the positive messages which made his name, and whilst Slumdog is very much a testament to Boyle's directorial facility, it owes a lot to Beaufoy's feelgood muscles.

Which brings us back to Mamma Mia. And Los Olvidados, ie neo-realism. And a far wider discussion which I shall try to address as succinctly as possible, raising issues rather than answering questions.

Slumdog is quite obviously a feelgood movie. The guy gets the girl, and the money, and a whole nation is delighted for him. The guy, Jamal, played with a perfect downbeat insouciance by Dev Patel, is a sympathetic hero who goes on a classic journey, encapsulated by the film's title. We want him to succeed and he does. So why should Boyle be looking to play this down? 

The director talks about how he went to film in the real Mumbai slums, surprising his Indian crew, who normally build slums when they need them. This is a token of the film's authenticity. It opens with a dynamic chase sequence, as Jamal and his brother flee the police.  The brothers' mother is killed by a religious mob. They end up living on a rubbish dump. They are slumdogs, and the audience is invited into their home. This is neo-realist territory, but Boyle's filmmaking is anything but low-key. If the experience of watching Slumdog has anything to do with living in the slums of Mumbai, its purely an accident of time and place. In Boyle's version, life there is an endless riot of escapades and adventures; losing a parent here or there is a glitch to be shrugged off as you get on with the business of living in this heightened, hyperactive environment. Even Jamal's police torturers end up seeming like people you wouldn't mind hanging out with for a while, basically jovial fellows who just happen to have a car battery and some jump leads lying around. (Irfan Khan's performance, to be fair, suggests layers of subtlety which the film by and large avoids.)

The feelgood narrative kicks in, (including the only time Ricky Ponting's likely to be happy he's scored less centuries than Hobbs), and the film heads towards a Holly/Bolly ending, the final dance sequence a splendidly throwaway feather on its cap. The perils of poverty are left behind, and the whole world can delight in the power of Celador to make dreams come true. 

I'm not sure what I think about all this. On the one hand, it seems remarkable and impressive that Boyle, Beaufoy and Celador can create a globalised product out of Mumbai. Whilst Bollywood has a global reach, its likely that Slumdog will infiltrate places no Bollywood movie can. (And the film's affectionate nods towards Bollywood felt appropriate.) In a globalised world, there's no reason why the majority of international film stories should feature white casts and suburban lawns (or crinolines). Boyle, who seems to have been re-energised as a filmmaker by his bold move, has created a film which might one day stand in the pantheon of the great feel-good movies, with not a star in sight. 

On the other, there's a hint of colonialism. Not so much with the fact that a group of Brits have returned to India and used the environment to make a film there; but in the ludicrously wish-fulfilling nature of the narrative they've employed. One which would appear to re-affirm the wonderful Western dream which Celador is founded on: we can all become millionaires, no matter where we're born. We just need to learn how to find the right answers and the world can be our oyster.

1 comment: said...

wants to be
a mill-yaire x