What Is Bollywood?

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FILM » SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE
DIRECTOR » DANNY BOYLE
STARRING » ANIL KAPOOR, DEV PATEL, FREIDA PINTO, IRRFAN KHAN, MADHUR MITTAL

WHEN THE VENERABLE Roger Ebert visits India, he will imagine he knows the name of almost every Indian woman — Latika; if Danny Boyle is to be believed, there are 26,283 Latikas in Mumbai alone.

Slumdog Millionaire opens with a multiple-choice question: “Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? A: He cheated. B: He’s lucky. C: He’s genius. D: It is written.” With a device as smart as this — a set-up whose inevitable answer will turn out to be ‘written’ (or destined) — the film could well go on to be about pretty much anything before circling back in its finale to remind us that everything was predestined. A choice left out of the prologue could have been ‘Option A answers all questions’. Well, mostly.

A story the whole world already knows, Slumdog is, not unlike its Oscar co-contender Benjamin Button, a film deftly constructed with a series of flashbacks intercut with one of only two events that are played out in the present — the interrogation after which the film hurtles to the 20-million-rupee question and the lovers’ reunion. I wonder why, though, this present is set in 2006, as the title card indicates?

Although there have been numerous documentaries and oriental exotica woven before, Slumdog is the first Bollywood film by a foreign filmmaker. Scant criticism for the film in the West and copious amounts in India has accused it of being ‘typical Hollywood tripe’ and ‘nothing more than Bollywood masala’ respectively. How does Boyle manage to get accused of making both a Hollywood and a Bollywood film at the same time?

A clever conceit, Slumdog is a cinematic tour-de-force that employs a realistic portrayal of what is essentially an uplifting fantasy (Hollywood likes uplifting, and Bollywood thrives on fantasy fare). And the secret? ‘It is written’. Whether we like it or not, films need to be written. And when they aren’t, more often than not they become fodder for the next generation’s spoofs.

Danny Boyle is enjoying a Jamal-like fortune with his film; a billion Indians are rooting for Slumdog to sweep the Oscars. Come February 22, India’s rejoicing billion may insist that the next season of Kaun Banega Crorepati be played live — it’s much more fun the Slumdog way, with its attendant opportunities to scam the show. And also demand that the brilliant Anil Kapoor reprise the Amitabh-Shahrukh role. Jai Ho.

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