Salaam Dog Millionaire: Mira Nair and her Sphere of Indianfluence

Hey, that's my movie, royt?

Mira Nair seems to be the muse of the moment.  Two of her films, Monsoon Wedding and Salaam Bombay, could very well be the inspiration for a pair of the most buzzed about movies of the year.  The first is Rachel Getting Married, starring Anne Hathaway as a narcissistic addict struggling through recovery.  The second is British filmmaker Danny Boyle’s latest effort, Slumdog Millionaire.

The buzz surrounding Slumdog is as defeaning as Indian mosquitoes on a summer night somewhere on the Sunderbhan Delta.  Roger Ebert’s calling for an Oscar; USA Today says 4 stars, but any Desi worth his Bata flip-flops has to wonder if adoration for this movie is anything more than 21st century exoticization.  Holy Hanuman, a Bollywood movie made for and by Westerners?  Sounds awesome.

Not so much.  Based on the book Q & A by Indian author Vikas Swarup, Slumdog relies on a script that aims for the sublime but barely gets past the subpar.  You have to be skeptical of a movie whose structure is built on a conceit that by its nature reminds you how much time is left until the credits roll.  The film opens with Jamal Malik on the hot seat of the popular Indian version of the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  What plays out is a series of vignettes that show how Jamal’s past as an orphan in the Bombay slums informs his answers to each of the questions posed to him by the game’s slippery host, played by Bollywood veteran and Indian mega-star Anil Kapoor.  The end result is a greatest hits of Indian atrocity, part Forrest Gump, part Midnight’s Children.

It’s a clever premise that gets old fast.  Slumdog Millionaire quickly devolves into a generic coming of age tale peppered with music by A.R. Rahman, the father of contemporary Bollywood soundtracks who appears to be ten years past his prime, and typical Danny Boyle visual flare.  Beautiful shots of rag tag Indian orphans leaping from rooftop to rooftop in the sunlight reflecting off the Indian Ocean are gratuitous and derivative of previous fare seen in Born into Brothels.  Souped up images of gangsters counting money come off as Boyle-being-Boyle, necessary tricks to keep the fan boys of Trainspotting, Millions, The Beach and A Life Less Ordinary happy and in their seats.

Perhaps the visual gimmicks would work if the movie took the time to answer the questions it creates.   Early in the film young Jamal and his brother go from speaking Hindi to English with no explanation.  What follows is at times a harrowing depiction of impoverished youth that amounts to nothing more than backstory for an improbable romance between childhood friends Jamal and Latika, played assuredly by Freida Pinto doing her damsel in distressed jeans. Jamal is a skinny, bumbling, mocha-colored intern at a call center with no money and no charm.  Why a Mumbai king pin’s beautiful girlfriend with almond skin and nicely defined eyebrows would risk everything to be with him is a question that begs to be asked, and a question that begs to be answered in a movie about love and redemption.  Seriously, as a bumbling, mocha-colored Indian dude with no money, no charm and a potato nose to boot, I need to know what fair-skinned Indhos like Latika are looking for in a suitor.

Apparently, it’s bad acting.

Slumdog isn’t helped by the performance of its lead, British actor Dev Patel, either.  Patel’s soft eyes and minimal presence undermine scenes Boyle probably wanted to pulse with machismo.  “That’s what I do,” says Patel in one scene, “I answer questions.”  The line falls flat and the image of him spitting blood in defiance of a violent police interrogation is as convincing as LiLo playing Hamlet.  Previous Boyle leads include true talents like Ewan McGregor, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cyllian Murphy. It’s unlikely Patel will join their ranks.

Boyle’s past success with remarkable male leads probably explains his inability to use Pinto to her full potential.  The filmmakers and writers leave her with little to do other than brood, demure and run away from men vying for her affection.  Her choices are rarely steeped in anything more than “Indian femininity,” and the scenes between Patel and Anil Kapoor throb with more tension than the romance between Latika and Jamal.  To her credit though, Pinto’s performance of a damaged girl resigned to her lot is oddly effective, despite little depth created by the script.

The most endearing parts of Slumdog Millionaire are the scenes between the children portraying Jamal, his brother Salim and Latika in their youth.  These are the moments of the film that resonate with any sort of authenticity between the characters.  Credit must go to Boyle and co-director Loveleen Tandan, who also co-casted the film, for capturing the exuberance, innocence and fear of orphan hood in Bombay.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t help watching most of these scenes without thinking in the back of my head that I’ve seen it all before in movies like Salaam Bombay and Traffic Signal.

I’m positive the only reason this film is generating the response that it is generating is because it’s easily marketed as a hip, Bollywood movie for a Western audience.  The film sold out nearly every screening in its first two weeks at New York’s Angelika Film Center on Houston Street.  Fortunately I Fandangoed tickets for an 8 o’clock show.  Otherwise I would have had to deal with the muscle bound macaca who tried to shoulder check me in front of the kiosk so he could get tickets to impress his Gujurati hottie girlfriend.  Slumdog tickets were a hot commodity in NYC.  Wet, Hot, American Summer and Role Models director David Wain even sat behind me and chatted leisurely with his friend throughout the film.

The director of Trainspotting, M.I.A. on the soundtrack, Irfahn Kahn bringing mustache back.  There’s a lot to love about Slumdog Millionaire.  It’s just too bad that little of it has to do with the actual movie.  At the end of the day a cheesy storyline and an ironic dance number that looks like it’s straight out of a Upenn SASA show are not all it takes to capture the ethos of Bollywood.  Anyone who’s seen Dil Se, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, or Lagaan knows that Hindi movies, despite being overwrought, still manage to make you laugh, cry and bhangra in your living room within the span of four minutes.  They are bombastic productions with few expectations.  Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire?  Naw, but maybe we’ll see Patel, Pinto and Boyle at the Filmfare Awards in Mumbai.  The buzz may be strong but the pay off is weak.  And that’s my final answer.

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