Daily Archives: January 16, 2009

Dogs and critics: Danny Boyle in India

Azharuddin Mo Ismail as Salim in Slumdog Millionaire   

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as the youngest Salim in Slumdog Millionaire

I really enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire which was all I hoped it might be. I’m not going to write a review because there are already so many out there, it would be pointless to repeat the same comments. I’m more interested in the hype that preceded the film’s release in the UK and the storm of comment that has followed the film’s box-office and awards ceremony success. The UK media have been referring to the Golden Globes wins for the film all week and the Guardian, in particular, has found a new angle for a feature virtually every day (today’s being a feature on Vikas Swarup, the author of the original novel). But the controversy that has really got the bloggers into a spin was the statement by Amitabh Bachchan on his own blog. I was sucked into the argument by quotes and references on other sites, all of which suggested that the ‘Big B’ had criticised the film. This was followed up by a Guardian Film Blog by the ‘bad boy’ of young British-Asian writers, Nirpal Dhaliwal, who gleefully tore into Bachchan with the Guardian web subs presenting a Boyle v. Bachchan face-off. When I last looked, there were over 200 comments on the blog.


The Guardian Film Blog's headline

If you go back to the Big B’s blog (which other major stars publish anything like this?), it’s clear that he isn’t criticising the film as such, but instead making several cogent comments about how the film has been received in the West and in the Indian Press (it hasn’t yet officially opened in India) – and why some Indians have taken against the film. Of course, this isn’t as interesting a story as “The Big B slams Slumdog“. Maybe not, but for me this whole controversy is potentially like the first boulder breaking away from the dam – eventually the whole thing will burst and there will be much more understanding about Indian Cinema, both inside and outside the country.

It’s worthwhile reading through Dhaliwal’s entertaining but ill-informed rant and then through the comments, many of which are very well-informed and show what a sophisticated audience exists for a diverse range of Indian films that unfortunately are not well distributed in India or internationally. So, instead of a review of Slumdog, I’m offering here a collation of some of the ideas about how Slumdog works as a film narrative and how it engages with other Indian films. (I don’t claim these as original comments, but as selected from the current discussion.)

1970s/80s Bollywood: The general story ideas in Slumdog are not dissimilar to those in a host of Bollywood films, including many starring Amitabh Bachchan. I can’t remember the titles, but the idea of two brothers growing up in the slums, one of whom will become a gangster and one a police officer/novelist/entertainer etc. is a conventional Bollywood (and Hollywood) narrative idea.

Contemporary Bollywood: I haven’t seen many recent Bollywood films, but the camerawork and lighting from Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002) struck me immediately on watching Slumdog with its tilted frames in many scenes. Wikipedia has a useful little summary of Varma’s work, including a reference to Danny Boyle’s own statement about how he took ideas for the depiction of Mumbai’s underworld from Varma’s films. Varma’s work also involves Amitabh Bachchan and A R Rahman. This leads into another link since Rahman has been responsible for the scores of many Mani Ratnam films.

Mani Ratnam and Tamil Cinema: It seems inconceivable to me that in his Indian Cinema research, Danny Boyle would not have dug out (or been told about) the films of Mani Ratnam, who for me is the popular Indian Cinema director most likely to interest Western cinephiles. The communal riot scenes in Slumdog evoke the similar scenes in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1994), a commercially successful film in Tamil and then a controversial, but influential, film dubbed into Telugu and Hindi.

Music influences: A R Rahman scored Bombay and I wondered how he and Boyle worked together on Slumdog? He answers that question in a Screen International interview (16/1/2009). Perhaps not surprisingly, he didn’t get involved until a rough cut was ready. So, he didn’t in any way influence the shooting style, but he does say that he thinks that Slumdog “has a heart and soul that is very Indian”. Music and sound design are important elements of any film and are too often ignored. A R Rahman won his Golden Globe and I hope he gets the Oscar too. It’s interesting that Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was successful in the UK for its music soundtrack as much as anything else. Indian commentators are already suggesting that sales of the Slumdog soundtrack will help drive audiences into the cinemas across India.

Mira Nair and Salaam Bombay: If I didn’t know that Slumdog was based on a novel, I would have been tempted into thinking that Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle had just lifted ideas wholesale from this wonderful film and then re-worked them in the style of Boyle’s UK films and the Indian films discussed above. Salaam Bombay! (UK/India/France 1988) was Mira Nair in her original documentary mode moving into fiction features with a story about slum children in Bombay who do various jobs to survive. A sub-plot includes an attempt by one of the boys to rescue a young girl trafficked into a brothel (which means going against the local criminal boss).  All these ideas turn up in Slumdog.

So, Slumdog‘s originality is not in its narrative material, but in the way that it is put together – by combining ideas from different types of Indian films, from Hindi Cinema past and present, from ‘regional’ cinema (I hate that term!) and from the diaspora cinema of Mira Nair with its European/North American shooting styles (Film Four was a producer on both Salaam and Slumdog). I don’t think anyone’s done that before. Gurinder Chadha made Bride and Prejudice (UK/US 2004), which I haven’t seen, but as far as I can tell it only used contemporary Bollywood ideas – am I wrong? Slumdog appears to me to be a genuine fusion film with elements from different Indian Cinema blended with British/Hollywood aesthetics. 

The proof will come with the Indian release on January 23. As I understand it, the English/Hindi soundtrack will be on prints for major urban areas, but there will be a Hindi dub for smaller towns. The Hollywood studio Fox is involved in the distribution and I hope they make Telugu and Tamil dubs as well. Much as I think Dev Patel does a good job as the lead character, he is definitely very English! One final point, Slumdog also makes excellent use of the new ideas for ‘subtitles’ – except now they are not necessarily ‘sub’ and pop up all over the screen – wherever they make more sense in the overall composition of the image.

Defiance (US 2008)


Daniel Craig and Liv Schreiber as Tuvia and Zus Belieski

Daniel Craig and Liv Schreiber as Tuvia and Zus Belieski

I want to see Andrjez Wajda’s Katyn about the massacre of Polish Army officers by the Russians in 1940. Wajda is a great filmmaker and this is a personal project. But the film still hasn’t got UK distribution. I can watch a similarly personal project about the Jewish partisans who successfully fought the Germans during the occupation of Byelorussia (now Belarus) between 1941 and 1944. The difference is that this is a $50 million film available on wide release in UK multiplexes. It is, however, technically an American independent film, shot in Lithuania with cast and crew largely from Europe. So I guess it’s a global film.

I have mixed feelings about director/co-writer Edward Zwick. I first came across him as the director of Glory (1989), in many ways a ground-breaking film that introduced Denzel Washington as a star and outlined the history of African-Americans in the Union Army during the Civil War. Later, I was repelled by what I read about the representation of Arab terrorists in The Siege (1998) and I didn’t see the film. I did watch The Last Samurai (2003) and although it was overlong and a bit silly in the last third (and starred Tom Cruise), there were impressive scenes and a sense of a genuine love for Japanese history and cinema. Zwick is clearly someone who specialises in stories about individuals caught up in conflicts, often in different cultural contexts. The difference in Defiance is that the film is relevant to Zwick’s own past in that his family left Poland after the First World War and the story of the three Bielski brothers is based on real events.

The three brothers are played by Daniel Craig, Liv Schreiber and Jamie Bell. They couldn’t look less like brothers, but they can all give a good performance, helped, I think, by the decision to all speak in some kind of East European accent. They are at least consistent (even if there are criticisms that a Brit speaking Russian is not very convincing). Although most of the dialogue is in English, there are significant exchanges in Russian and Belarusian (?). Before the screening there was a trailer for Valkyrie, in some ways a similar production – a Hollywood film with British actors and crew members on location in Eastern Europe. But in this case, the actors appeared to keep their own accents. Tom Cruise and Bill Nighy together as German staff officers was hilarious.

The Bielski brothers survived the first wave of German massacres of Belarusian Jews, but lost their parents and wives/girlfriends. They fled to the forests where they built refuges and took in other Jews escaping from the ghettoes, developing a relationship with Russian partisans who were officially part of the Red Army. Eventually, they ended up in a fortified village with over a thousand inhabitants despite attempts by the German forces to flush them out.

The film is well acted, beautifully photographed by the Portuguese master Eduardo Serra and crisply directed by Zwick. The action scenes work well and there is a convincing drama of relationships between the brothers and within the group generally. Part war combat movie and part ‘home front’/resistance film, it offers an interesting generic mix. On the downside it is too long and there was a moment when I thought the narrative lost direction and I began to wonder what might happen (which is rare for me, I’m usually caught up in the narrative). There was also one rather deadly speech delivered by Daniel Craig. I’m loath to criticise speeches where characters lay out a moral/political position since I’ve spent a long time defending the same thing in Ken Loach films. This time, however, the speech just doesn’t fit into the overall approach adopted elsewhere and the narrative just seemed to stop and wait for the moment to go away. Of course, this is a Hollywood film and it is all slightly ridiculous. The young women in the forest are all beautiful, the men are great fighters and the actual group we see never gets more than 40 or 50 strong. A different film might have focused on the logistics of the operation and the realism of survival as well as explaining a bit more about where the story is set and who was fighting whom. This one doesn’t, but as a popular film it introduced audiences to an historical event that is worth remembering. The one terrible thought I had during the screening was that the film could become a propaganda weapon for the Israelis since its main thematic is that these are Jews who fought back and survived an experience that mainstream history has tended to represent in terms of passivity and meek acceptance of a terrible fate. I have no argument with the theme as such and the film was meant to have been released several months ago when it would have been less explosive. It’s a shame that it appears when the attacks on Gaza are at their height. At the end of the film we learn about what happened to the real Bielski brothers. I was wondering if they went to Palestine, but the two survivors (who were represented as pragmatic men) went to New York.