Confession time: I have been exceedingly wicked and let impatience get the better of me. I watched Slumdog Millionaire on a pirated CD and
am reeling. As someone who has seen Mumbai turn from 'The City of Gold' to 'The City of Muck,' this movie encapsulated the despair and desperation of Dharavi in a manner so gritty it was scary.
It cut terrifyingly close to the bone as it took us straight into the innards of this brutal world, where wide-eyed kids lose their innocence (and their eyes) at the hands of ruthless gangsters who mutilate, maim, kidnap and kill at will. And the first thought that came to mind is that it has taken an 'outsider' (Danny Boyle), to go fearlessly into 'No Man's Land' and hold up a mirror to our sordid society — the same one that looks the other way... and flinches when confronted.
It also makes one wonder why some of our entirely over-rated, desi directors (homegrown products, at that), have failed so spectacularly in spelling out the ugly truth about Mumbai's dark world as transparently and convincingly? Whether or not Boyle's film wins an Oscar or two is immaterial. It should be made compulsory viewing for anybody who wants to understand the shocking, ghastly subtext that deals with the 'other' Mumbai — the one that feeds on abject poverty and paradoxically enough, also on the soaring hope that this same poverty breeds success.
Mira Nair had skimmed the surface and given a faux glamourous sheen to a similar subject by romanticising the lives of Mumbai's street kids — that was Salaam Bombay, and much has changed in the city since then. Boyle depicts the transition of Bombay to Mumbai in just one evocative scene in which the two protagonists, Salim and Jamal are back in the city in whose gutters and shit holes (literally) they've been raised, after a gap of several years. They are young adults now, and still working for shady underworld bosses engaged in everything from supari killings to prostitution.
The older brother Salim surveys the scene from atop an underconstruction high rise and tells Jamal, "Bombay has become Mumbai now... this was the slum we grew up in.... remember?" That 'slum' is now a sprawling, upmarket residential complex developed by land sharks who control the suburb. Nothing more is said, or needs to be. That is the power of cinema — and Boyle has gouged out a story of such wretchedness, it is at once riveting and revolting, as you find yourself unable to handle the pathos and yet, paralysed to reach for the remote and end your misery.
Loveleen Tandon, the co-director must be acknowledged for the brilliant casting and the decision to adopt Hindi into the dialogues. The film scores several coups in that it engages the viewer in a story that is pure, unadulterated Bollywood of the '70s (pretty close to the 'twins separated at birth' formula), and yet, compellingly contemporary. The script remains supreme, as each scene fuses seamlessly into the next one, going effortlessly from flashbacks to the now, as audiences start to piece the whole magic puzzle together. Dev Patel's performance as Jamal, the slumdog who wins two crore rupees in a show, has come in for great praise.
But it is equally Anil Kapoor's finely balanced and highly intelligent portrayal as the twisted quiz show host that deserves accolades. While the over-hyped Kings and Badshahs of Bollywood are still waiting for their dream roles in Hollywood, Kapoor has done it! Good on you, Anil. It's apt that one of the nominations is for ensemble acting, for the actors are like the film's outstanding musical score by A R Rahman — everything comes together in a crescendo that is perfectly pitched, with not a single false note. The sole female actor Frieda Pinto is being lauded as the next Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek. Maybe.
But Slumdog... is Boyle's gift to Mumbai. He has unblinkingly shown us the rather hideous face of this devastated metropolis that still remains the magnet for the rest of India, despite its faultiness. We would naturally prefer to hide this grotesque, menacing aspect which is enough to make every citizen cringe with shame. But, in Boyle's interpretation there is still lyricism, tenderness and love under all that grime. What do you call that? Genius is a good place to start... O Danny Boy, O Danny Boy... we love you so!