Sunday, November 16, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire redux

I wondered aloud on Wednesday about the new movie "Slumdog Millionaire" -- whether I would like it or not.

Well. I saw the film yesterday. It's quite brilliant -- and enormously entertaining, the credit going to Boyle's hyperkinetic syntax and A. R. Rehman's equally pulsing score. (And Anil Kapoor gives a sly stylized turn as the vain host of the millionaire show -- my favorite performance in the movie.)

But -- you knew there was a but coming, didn't you? -- I suspect that the people who enjoy this film the most will be non-desis. The movie has some jarring cognitive dissonances (for me): Jamal Malik, it's hero is played here by three actors as he ages. Jamal No 1 speaks in shuddh Hindi while Jamal Nos 2 and 3 speak perfect English. Jamal No 3 (Patel) even speaks with an English accent!

Somini Sengupta's NYT piece has the goods on how this happened:
The decision to go with Hindi stemmed from a need to find child actors who could be true to the characters in the script. Ms. Tandan, who is Indian, said it was impossible to find English-speaking Indian children who could play hard-knuckles slum kids. Mr. Boyle immediately understood that, she said, and agreed to rewrite the script into Hindi. Ms. Tandan ended up hiring real kids, some of them from the Mumbai slums, to play the three lead child characters. [...]

For Mr. Boyle one of the toughest challenges was casting the lead role: the 18-year-old protagonist, Jamal Malik. He auditioned one young Indian actor after another. Many of them were capable, but they all looked buffed out, Mr. Boyle recalled, because they were all grooming for roles in Indian cinema.

In the end Mr. Boyle went with an actor his teenager daughter recommended: Dev Patel, from the British television series “Skins.” That choice could be called the most dissonant part of “Slumdog Millionaire.” Though he is a fine actor, Mr. Patel’s accent gives away who he is: a Briton of Indian origin. Not a kid from a Mumbai slum.
It isn't just Dev Patel though. And it isn't just that the three Mumbai slumdogs (Jamal, his brother Salim and the love of his life, Latika, all of whom are played by different actors at ages 7, 11 and 18) speak English -- it is that they speak English in the way the children of the elite upper middle-class families of Mumbai do -- and that the children who come from less urban areas in India don't*. And when a slumdog starts speaking like that, it feels ... to put it mildly, awkward.

Don't let that deter you though -- the movie is fantastic, especially its final third -- which had me chewing on my nails even though I knew what the outcome would be. If it could do that to me, despite all my quibbles, imagine what it could do for you if these sort of things don't bother you at all! (Or better, if you don't even notice any of them).

* Contrast the the way the three youngsters -- Jamal, Salim and Latika -- speak with the way their older costars -- Irfan Khan who plays the Inspector and Anil Kapoor who plays the vain TV show host -- talk. Both Kapoor and Khan are still elite urban Indians but they're both considerably older which means that their English is still not influenced by MTV. (Snooty urban Indian children would call this kind of English as "vernacular".)

UPDATE: I was sad the other day that David Edelstein hadn't reviewed Slumdog. But while the review doesn't appear in New York, he's put up a review on his blog.


Harini Sridharan said...

I totally enjoyed the movie too!(except for the few moments of grossness, which could not have been helped I suppose).

And this inspite of the fact that I read the book (on which the movie is based) before I saw the movie.

kiran mova said...

despite that moment of grossness (thought of which sends me creeps), i loved the story...