Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Slumdog – a plausible explanation of success!

Bollywood movies request a very high degree of suspended disbelief from its viewers. Details are not very important. People are allowed to fill the holes in the story using their own imagination and preferences. And that’s the point of Bollywood production. It leaves room for perfection. While great Hollywood movies leave you disarmed of criticism, Bollywood movies invite it. Hollywood makes sequel to tell a new story but Bollywood makes them to say the same story with new cast and new crew.

I thought Bollywood movies are not appreciated in the west because it defies logic and realism. It’s too cheesy. It is musical. It has lip-sync. It always has happily ever after ending. It has predictable story line with few twists and turns. No complex plots and subplots. It’s usually a story of young couple falling in love, not of ogre falling in love with a princess. A singer singing for the hero and heroine is common place, not a hero or heroine speaking for one eyed monsters and mammoths.

Slumdog has holes in it. A lot of them. The kind of gaps you usually expect from Bollywood flick, not from a western production. In Bollywood movies, long lost orphan twins grow up and recognize each other after decades by looking at birth marks. In Slumdog, small kids grow up into big boys in a train ride. Jamal and Latika recognize each other, both in their adulthood by then, just by staring at each other for a while. Jamal recognizes his brother Salim’s voice over the phone when they talk for the first time after they became adults! In true Bollywood tradition.

Slumdog require a high degree of suspended disbelief. Indian police can be brutal. But they will dare not touch a slumdog who just came out of a show in which he answered all but the last question on his way to win final price in front of millions watching on TV. It is cheesy. I have seen Amitabh and Sharukh hosting Indian version of ‘who wants to be a millionaire’. They usually take extra care to be friendly with contestants when millions are watching them on TV. Any perceived ill treatment or arrogance will damage their popularity and brand value and knock off millions from their endorsements. A non-Indian audience will conclude that calling someone on live TV ‘chai wala’ is an Indian way. It is not. We may call ‘chai wala’ when the camera is off and mikes are pulled off, but not before. India is a land of caste and class but cant be accused of a land of stupid people. Oh, I didn’t tell you this one. Amitabh gave autograph to a kid without even noticing that this kid is covered in feces. In fact, no one among the crowd seems to smell! But again, that’s Bollywood tradition.

So how is Slumdog different from a Bollywood production? Not much. Bollywood movies do not pretend that what they show on screen is nothing more than a fiction . It’s a means of illusory fulfillment for ordinary people to see miracle happening on screen while their day to day life is spent pulling rickshaws and serving tea in call centers. In this movie, like many bollywood classics, its characters fight poverty and refuse to play victims. This is what Bollywood has been teaching Indians for almost a century now. They show how to fight grinding poverty and grueling injustices albeit in their own filmy ways. They show the wealth and flamboyance of the rich to help poor folks dream of good life.

Sometimes the fights are won when a retired police inspector, whose hands were chopped off by a dacoit, takes revenge by crushing him to death with his feet (Sholay). Some other times the fights are won using cricket bat and ball (Lagaan). Wealth is made by the hero breaking rocks in a hot Indian summer day. Wealth is also made by the taxi wala when a rich business man forgets his suitcase full of cash. Every movie shows a way to happiness. Depressing ones usually don’t make much money. They can’t afford to depress already stressed Indian people. After a day of sweat, spit, and trash all around them, they want to go back to their 10’ x 8’ jannath (heaven) and turn on their TV and watch song scenes from a Bollywood movie and constantly remind them of life’s plausible surprises.

And that’s the Bollywood experience Slumdog offers to western audience. Indians who are seasoned by Bollywood movies may not find much new in this movie. But its a new experience for the west. The magic of believing in unbelievable things, the liberty to imagine what is missing, the idea of enthrallment to all senses and the healing power of watching young and beautiful falling in love!

At a time people saw collapsing home prices, plunging 401Ks, massive job losses, widespread breach of trust in business and government, story of underdog becoming a topdog offers poetic justice. After watching Mumbai under siege on CNN for 3 days, it is easy for the west to break into AR Rehman's music and Bollywood's dance and song number. Jai Ho....

Indeed, we live in times of HOPE. Oscar will want to recognize that.


Mathew Saji said...

good logic!!!you can be right......

Alok Sharma said...

good write-up. You might want to send it to TOI's reader's speak.