Wednesday, 14 January 2009


9/9/08, Barbican

A full house on the day of the film's release. It seemed to go down well: beaming faces and a positive buzz afterwards.

It's set in India, it's about India, but it's not really an Indian film. For one thing, there's only one Bollywood-style song and dance sequence and that's over the end credits. The critics keep comparing it to Dickens, a very European writer, which is apt. There's the same melodrama and underlying sentimentality; the same rather cavalier approach to plotting with enormous reliance on mind-boggling coincidence; the same strongly-drawn characters; the same vivid portrayal of slum life, corruption, crime and downright evil. But Dickens wears his social conscience on his sleeve: his stuff is a kind of agitprop. This film is entertainment.

The strongest bits are those showing our orphaned hero's childhood in the Mumbai slums - perhaps because these are the bits of the film most alien to the affluent westerner. There are great chase sequences through the narrow alleys (director Danny Boyle does love sending his camera pelting along a corridor or up a staircase). There's a cruel scene in which a Fagin-like character has a boy blinded to make him a more effective member of his gang of beggars: I won't forget that in a hurry. Likewise a (comic) scene in which our hero, Jamal, gets locked in a latrine above a river and jumps through the hole into the ordure beneath, emerging covered in shit. And the colours are unforgettable -- especially of brightly-coloured clothing pegged out to dry after being washed.

The film is good too on Mumbai's criminal gangs, and the way in which Jamal's brother gets drawn into one. There's a vertiginous sequence atop a tower block under construction which, we're told, is being built by a man who started out as a slum gangster and is now clearly benefiting from India's extraordinary economic boom.

There's also a lyrical sequence in which the two boys criss-cross India, riding on the roofs of trains (snaking across the countryside, filmed in foreshortening long shot), stealing food from passengers and masquerading as guides at the Taj Mahal, which is obviously meant to subvert the tourist view of India but comes perilously close to endorsing it.

The weakest scenes are those when our hero has grown-up. He's tortured and interrogated in the police station. He mopes around hunting for the lost girl of his dreams. He flukes a succession of correct answers on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He's a sort of holy innocent, but I never quite believed in him. Surely someone with his capacity to absorb and remember facts, combined with the survival skills picked up in a childhood on the streets, would have made more of himself than a chai wallah in a call centre?

The intense and deliberate artificiality of the Millionaire scenes clashed just too strongly with the rest of the film (they're meant to of course, but it jarred too much). And what do we think of Millionaire's producer, Celador, being the film's co-producer: is this just too much like an extended advertorial or an enormous exercise in product placement? They cheat, too, by pretending the show goes out live, because that heightens the drama.

And there was a missed opportunity. It's clear that after his first appearance on Millionaire Jamal has become a hero to tens of millions of India's poor. You see them, gathered round a TV set in the open air, the Taj Mahal in the distance. More might have been made of that.

But full marks for managing to make a charming, feelgood film which doesn't wholly flinch from showing the reality of poverty in India.

No comments:

Post a Comment