Almost three months have passed since a friend recommended this movie to me, and finally I have been able to watch it. A lot has happened since that time; the movie has won numerous Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars. It has been praised and trashed by journalists and bloggers, and probably no other movie in recent times caused so much of passionate debate. After going through other peoples' opinions for nearly three months, here is my opinion of the movie.
I will intentionally refrain from bashing the movie because of the way India was depicted - a land of slums, filth, beggars, criminals and call centres. A land of cheating tourist guides, thieving kids, torturing policemen and dishonest and rude TV show hosts. A country with only two places - Mumbai slums and the Taj Mahal. While I do not agree with this view of India, I will not go over the top in criticizing it because this is a story and not a documentary. If the director chooses to show India in this way, and if the Indian authorities did not prevent him from shooting there (like they prevented Spielberg while shooting Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), why should that prevent me from appreciating a great movie?
The problem is, it does not turn out to be a great movie either.
First and foremost, let me state that it is fast-moving, and better-made than the average Bollywood production. At the same time, it is also utterly predictable till the last moment. Never during the movie did I wonder what would happen next in the story. Also, it is a "don't-ask-questions" kind of a movie, so you may want to know certain things, but better get rid of your curiosity and common sense and enjoy the movie.
"Enjoy the movie!" cried many bloggers and blog commenters all over the Internet. "Why do you have to over-analyze each scene and ask questions?" To honour them, let us see if the movie really is enjoyable. Firstly the story. The story is very weak, not only because of its total predictability but also because of its utterly unrealistic nature. Even if we choose not to ask the most obvious question of how all kinds of misfortunes could happen to one single person, other questions keep cropping up. Why does the show "Who wants to be a Millionaire" go on air live when it is a well-known fact that it is pre-recorded in reality? A person calling himself one of the three musketeers does not know the names of the real three musketeers, yet he knows who wrote a particular song sung by beggars. And how many blind beggars in Mumbai know a dollar bill by touch and smell? Moreover, how does one of them tell the denomination by hearing the description of the person on the bill? I, after handling dollars for over seven months, do not know whose picture is on a hundred dollar bill. By the way, that guy Jamal has to be real stupid to not know whose picture is there on a Rs. 1000 note – all currency notes in India have the same picture. Why does Anil Kapoor take a personal interest in not letting Jamal win? Why doesn’t Amitabh Bachchan hesitate to give an autograph to a child in that state? How did Jamal find Lathika living in that house with the guard? Why does Jamal choose 5:00 pm and CST to wait for Lathika? Doesn’t he know that an elephant could get lost in the Mumbai CST crowd at 5:00 pm? And really, when did he ever get time to fall in love with the girl?
Then the direction. Since this is the Oscar winner for the best picture of the year we are talking about, one could ask whether there is any such thing as a “chaiwallah” in a call centre, or whether the emergency windows had been introduced in trains in the period depicted, or whether Hrithik Roshan, whose dance moves the child imitates in a scene, had made his debut then. As a person who has worked in the same building with call centre employees and seen the rigorous training that they go through, I also wondered how any of them could just hand over the terminal to a “chaiwallah” who could handle calls and navigate the system with ease. Is this the script that won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar?
Actually this is a movie tailor-made for winning the Oscars. That is why the image of India most acceptable to the western audience is presented. The editing and cinematography are good, no doubt, and that combined with the immensely rich visual and auditory experience (compare an Indian market with an American one and you’ll understand what I mean here) was enough to bowl the judges and the audience over. Rahman’s music, although very ordinary by his own standard, was well suited to the movie. Only, I could not find any justification for the last song-and-dance sequence on the railway platform. And that is the song that gets the best song Oscar! Why, even Rahman’s other nomination, “O Saira” that accompanied the chase sequence in the beginning was better! It only shows that the western audience and film critics desperately need a taste of some really good music.
In conclusion, I would like to say that while watching the movie, the thing that shines through every moment is its overwhelming mediocrity, more so because of all that hype and all those awards. The movie is just a below-average masala Bollywood story filmed by a little above average director and so it isn't bad for watching once. But several Hindi movies of recent times can beat this movie in all departments, and I’m not even talking of classics. This is not a film worth a second watch, not a film to buy and keep for one’s collection. And this is definitely not one of the all-time greats. My father summed it up in a single line after watching Slumdog Millionaire. “If I have to make a list of the best 500 movies that I have ever seen, this movie would not make the list,” he said. I can only add this much: if this is the best movie of the year, the others must really have been unwatchable.