If you can keep your head

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APIP-SQUEAK of dissent is peeping through the fog of euphoria.Slumdog Millionaire (SDM) was going straight to DVD but it was pulled from that fate and lo — 10 Oscar noms? Really? If people like their social realism packaged like a cake of detergent, with large letters and bold graphic design, so be it. But ‘masterpiece’, ‘brilliant’? Really?

So, what to make of the unquestioning adulation SDM has received? I guess public perception is driven increasingly towards homogeneity, and stick-figure fantasies sell easier than nuanced realities blah, blah, blah. Still, what SDM shows is the power of mass conversion, and how advocates are made in this world of instant coffee; where generic social realism is intravenously consumed: no need to tax the tastebuds, needle straight to the bloodstream and it’s a joyride through wonderland.

All made artistic by the visceral style of a talented director at the height of his magic; squalor throbbing to the grooves of a talented composer; and populated by munchkins masquerading as people thanks to an unrelenting screenplay by a fine screenwriter, though one that seems written at the bar in the nine hours it takes to fly Virgin Atlantic to Bombay.

The tortured turn by the miscast lead nearly equalled the embarrassment of Sir Alec Guinness in brown paint and lungi (the awkward reincarnation of Obi-Wan-Kenobi as Godbole, the Hindu priest in Sir David Lean’s Passage To India). In SDM, the British casting director left the corridors of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and braved the wilderness of Wembly or Southall to deliver a casting coup.

No, she didn’t do even that.

Someone at Danny’s local saw their Dev Patel on a popular television show. The colour was brown and the accent slightly north London but hey, colonialism is long behind us. The rest, including Dev’s unfortunate accent jerked me so hard out of the film when he opened his mouth, I felt I was being shunted around Bombay in a taxi without suspension.

Wither the emotional connect of Kaun Banega Crorepati hosts Shah Rukh and Amitabh Bachchan with their middleclass audience and whither this portrayal of the show? Every adult in Boyle’s Bombay is evil and twisted — none more so than the crabby talkshow host. Contorting through contrived and overly plotted devices — c’mon, who uses hot water to wash hands in sweaty Bombay, other than a talkshow host who has to write a wrong answer on a mirror? — seemed a tad convenient didn’t it, Mr Beufoy? And just to vindicate his overblown reaction to Dev Patel’s triumphant march, we must suspend disbelief to springbusting limits. A two-line throwaway accounts for Kapoor’s bizarre behaviour.

Noh! Really? HE was a slumdog too. Ouch. There you have it — the famed Indian crab mentality covered by what’s becoming the great Indian film. Another box checked.

As to the love affair between Mr P and the to-be missus, my skin crawled as it became apparent that this was the motor, the engine, the flux capacitor of SDM.

But, what of the children! Those wide-eyed slum-pups who jumped on trains, got their eyes taken out, sang plaintively — weren’t they brilliant? And the imagery — the Star-Trek child-Krishna energised into a Hindu-Muslim riot, the Taj Mahal in golddust. B’jeez, this film has magical realism too — its grog that would make Tim Burton flush.

I, for one, was having nightmares. Images of the heaving of the collective Indian midriff, the fakirs on beds of nails — all in the rich tradition of Sabu and Godbole. Aye Danny, that really sold it to ‘em.

UNFORTUNATELY, when the magical cow-dust settles, the film doesn’t amount to more than an entertaining, overlong music video, celebrating the ascent of a cartoon character from crap. But, with marketing dollars strapped to it like an emergency parachute, it’s managed to pull off a miraculous leap from DVD hell. This is 21st century entertainment by a decidedly 20th century fox who figured that once the obligatory box of social relevance is checked, it’s all legit; members of the Academy, the Globers, the Screeners, shall obediently fall into line.

This is briefer-than-matchlight illumination of a dark continent for the underexposed waspy American who is (of late) finding it kinda cool to engage with the world. Perhaps it’s because of the new dude in the White House, perhaps a seeking of enlightenment while America searches for its soul. Being out of work makes people ask meaningful questions. Perhaps it’s just purging collective guilt through a convenient screen, or even the visceral thrill of catching a glimpse of poverty; ready to absorb, believe and conclude without history, geography; without context or parameters.

Whatever the complicated forces that contribute to public sentiment, SDM is not a cinematic masterpiece. Sorry. It just ain’t. I saw SDM a few months ago at a Fox premiere in LA, and forgot about it — till the universal adulation and carpetbombing of awards. I was forced to sit up and wonder whether the world had gone collectively cuckoo.

There are films that slam you in the gut, take the wind out of you, render you speechless, wrench your heart till you think it’ll pop, form a rock in your throat, creep under your skin — films that make you squirm or lift your spirit in a sigh. From those experiences we emerge stunned, sensitised, horrified, mesmerised.

Trainspotting was one such film.

I don’t doubt Mr Boyle’s sincerity in framing the milieu in which this unfortunate yarn is set; by all accounts, he’s a humble, generous man. But, for all his goodness and talent, this is potential belied, promise unfulfilled. Particularly so because it was Bombay, it was India and it was Danny Boyle. And this is one I REALLY wanted to like. So, enjoy the Oscars but don’t go looking for Bombay here — you may not find it.

For another opinion on SDM, read Kiran David’s piece at http://woodsmoke.wordpress.com

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