24 January, 2009

The Slumdog Millionaire Debate

What is it about Slumdog Millionaire that stirs up extreme reactions! From cravings such as ‘why can’t an Indian filmmaker make such a film” to snide remarks like “Slumdog Millionaire could only have been made by a westerner”, reactions to the film encompass an entire rainbow of emotions. Is it a nation’s collective aspiration of Golden Globes-Oscars and an industry’s repeated failure to get closer to it? Is it a submission to the “trickery” of a dexterous western director or a critical examination of his biases? Is this a victim’s cry of being subjugated of yet another foreign gaze or it is the jubilation of an Indian cast and crew for getting the attention of the world that they think rightly deserve?

The debate also seems to have attained a rightist fervor, India’s biggest film icon Amitabh Bachchan reportedly commented on the film “”if SM projects India as [a] third-world, dirty, underbelly developing nation and causes pain and disgust among nationalists and patriots, let it be known that a murky underbelly exists and thrives even in the most developed nations.”

A Guardian blog posted by Nirpal Dhaliwal, looks for a racial angle in the debate “Bachchan is no doubt riled, as many other Bollwood no-talents will be, about the fact that the best film to be made about India in recent times has been made by a white man”

All these allegations/arguments cover a wide range of issues and definitely deserve a critical scrutiny.

One of the basis of such arguments is “success” of the film that is defined by Golden Globes and various other awards that the film has won in the US and the UK. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) the film has won 31 awards apart from 4 Golden Globes and 37 nominations. Awards can definitely be taken as a parameter of critical success and 31+4 is an impressive score to begin with. Interestingly, most of the awards the film has won had been given by critics societies in the US and UK.

I do see a point in the arguments that the critical acclaim that the film has garnered is because of its western origins. Primarily because it reached those bodies which confer these awards.

This also makes us think if the film would have got such kind of attention, had it been made by an Indian director? The biggest handicap that I see is we don’t have a tradition of critical awards here in India. Here each business house representing a publication organizes an awards night of their own, that turns out to be more of an exercise to boost their brand, or draw TRPs or strengthen ties with stars than critically evaluate cinema.

Yes, we do have national awards but firstly, they run behind the schedule. By the time our Golden Lotuses are announced a film has already done its commercial runs (if released) and the ones which don’t get a release are forgotten. Besides, also lies the danger of awards being challenged in the courts.

We (except annual festivals) have no mechanism to screen, evaluate and reward a film independently and the ones that exist are either questionable or are too small to make a difference. Hence, the only means to judge success or failure of a film is its box office performance.

Isn’t it a little too much to expect from a Chicago critic’s circle or a critics association in LA to reward an Indian film for its intrinsic Indian qualities? They are bound to be better appreciative of a film if the director shares their sensibility. So yes, the fact that Slumdog is a film made and written (the screenplay) in English by westerners can make a difference in its critical evaluation, simply because the maker and evaluator share the same sensibility.

Isn’t it more practical to expect from an Indian film to win Indian awards and leave American awards to American films! Earlier we’ve seen films on the theme of Indian slums made by Indian directors and they’ve won critical acclaims in the country. Sudhir Mishra’s Dharavi won a national award and so did Mira Nair Salaam Bombay.

Things get complicated when we start thinking that American Awards belong to the whole world and Slumdog Millionaire is an Indian film. First leads to our craving for western awards especially Oscars and second leads to our claim of being victim of standardization.

2004, the year I came to Mumbai, I was amazed to see Shiva Sena, a right wing extremist nationalist party, collecting donations on the streets to support a Marathi film that was selected as India’s official entry to the Academy Awards in the foreign language category that year.

We have had discussed here earlier if American Academy is a fair judge, however, the point is also that how can a purely American academy (consisting of only US citizens as voters) be just to films rooted in alien cultures? So arguably, Slumdog being a film from a western perspective does help here and it has a favorable chance of getting nominated.

Another argument against the film is related to the issue of representation-the imagery that the film presents. According to some it exposes “the underbelly” of our rapidly developing country. I don’t subscribe to this argument either because I’m not unexposed to the underbelly of India. Firstly, its too manifest to be protected from anybody’s gaze. Secondly, our very own filmmakers be it Mishra (Dharavi) or Nair (Salaam Bombay) reveal it. You also see glimpses of it in Black Friday, even No Smoking, Life in a Metro and Sirf to name a recent few. Since these filmmakers are Indian, they have a right to showcase slums and Danny Boyle doesn’t, this argument doesn’t hold the test of scrutiny in a globalized world.

Is the film a stereotypical portrayal of India? The question calls for further discussion on what’s a stereotypical image of India and who decides that? If stereotype here means recurrent images of India in the western media and indophilic texts, then I would say that it has both Taj and Slums but neither hippies, snake charmers, naked Sadhus, veiled women, Maharajas nor elephants and hundred others. While the story is based in the slums of Mumbai, they can’t be done without. Taj also is a part of the narrative and you can’t deny Danny a chance to show Taj in his film only because it can be considered stereotypical representation of India and the director is a Briton!

Questions have also been raised about simplistic portrayal of the characters, who lack depth. I would agree that there were inconsistencies in the characters including the protagonist, however, the film was more concerned about the plot rather than taking us closer to the characters. I also believe the strategy of the director works because one gets hooked into the narrative as the film progresses. Though, largely remaining unsentimental, the film also manages to evoke sympathy if not empathy and identification with the central character. I know Indian mainstream (read Bollywood) conventions would have demanded little bit of more emotional appeal (like Chak De India) or an offbeat film (usually called “art film”) would have delved too deeper into the character but Danny Boyle’s narrative strategy can’t be questioned as long as it works. I think it strikes a fine balance between providing facts and paving way for fantasy.

Yes, what is simplistic about the film is the way it defines success. In the rags to riches story of Jamal Malik, success simply means money (the millions that he wins) and honey (the girl for whom he does that). It also has a tendency to escape to fancy means to resolve the real issues of slums, communal violence and child beggars through the means of a reality show. Some ten-fifteen years back the Jamal Malik of Slumdog (had it been a Hindi film by an Indian director) could have turned into a vagabond seething in vengeance, who would have sealed the fate of the rioters who killed his parent, the beggar mafia who blinded kids and the local don who stole both his brother and beloved.

However, that would have happened at least a decade ago. Now even Hindi cinema has moved forward, don’t you remember, recently we raved a film that realistically depicted a real issue and offered just a fantasy for a solution. Khosla ka Ghosla can’t be trashed because it fantasizes the solution of the problem of land grabbing in Delhi in order to make us probably laugh and feel better.

Probably, Hindi cinema audience haven’t gotten over our parallel cinema and still associate “realistic” (on location, hand held camera) approach of filming to issue based, cause oriented cinema. This cinema more often than not had a leftist leaning and was often overtly political. On the other hand, Danny Boyle is a new age, apolitical, post modern filmmaker, who known his craft well. Any similarities are just incidental.

Nevertheless, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog is more realist and contemporary. Perhaps after winning millions, Jamal will simply move a rung up in the social ladder, come out of the underbelly to the surface where India is rapidly growing. If Bollywood offers escapist fantasies then only difference about Boyle’s Slumdog is that his escape is fantastical!

13 January, 2009

Discovery of 2008: Siddharth Sinha, Silver Bear Winner at Berlin

As the screening of his film “Udedh Bun” at the 58th Berlin International Film Festival (7-17 February, 2008) got over, journalists from all over the world surrounded Siddharth Sinha, 30. His diploma film at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) had won him the prestigious Silver Bear, the second biggest award in the short film category. Soon after he was through with giving soundbites to media, a 76 years old German lady approached him with her autograph book. She thanked him and Siddharth thanked her back, it was his first autograph!

Udedh Bun, (Unravel), the short film of Siddharth has been traveling all over the world and it has already been screened at Pusan Internatinal Film Festival (South Korea 2-10 October, 2008), Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival, Ukrain (October 18-26, 2008), Edinburgh International Film Festival (18-29 June, 2008) and Dubai International Film Festival (December 11-18, 2008). Siddharth had been invited on the feature film jury of the Noordelijk Film Festival held in the city of Leeuwarden (Netherlands).

It was the kind of beginning of a career for an extremely humble and soft-spoken Siddharth that anyone can only dream of. The Berlin Silver Bear that he received has had recipients like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and V. Shantaram earlier. Mrinal Sen had won the last Silver Bear at Berlin for India in 1980 for his film “Akaler Sandhane ( In Search of the Famine)”

Udedh Bun, started with a germ of an idea: an adolescent boy caught between his sexual awakening and an ill, bed-ridden mother. The film explores the dilemmas and fantasies of the boy.Siddharth came up with the idea about two years before he actually made the film. He has a unique way of developing a screenplay, rather than writing it down he prefers telling it to people. He narrated the story to almost everyone he knew and kept developing it into a screenplay.

A film without almost any dialogue or background score was a risky propositions, besides his friends told him that it might end up being a film lacking in pace. This is where noted filmmaker Mani Kual’s advice helped him plug in the loopholes. Kaul, himself an FTII alumnus, teaches filmmaking to the final year students of the institute and Siddharth took the opportunity to narrate his story to him.

Once ready on paper, the challenge was to transport the story and feel on to celluloid that involved finding right locations, actors and numerous props.

One property that made the making of the film a memorable experience for Siddharth was a cycle rickshaw that was used in only once sequence of the film. He hunted entire Pune for it but in vain. Finally, he had to bring one from Ahmednagar. He had to pull it himself with his assistant pushing it from behind for almost one and a half kilometres.

Once the shooting got over, on the edit table, Siddharth gave it a serious thought to put in background score since it had hardly any dialogues. He went ahead and almost hired a music composer, who advised him not to put any. Finally, Siddharth approached Mani Kaul again, who suggested that the film works better with the ambiance sound alone.

The three member international jury at Berlinale, highly appreciated Udedh Bun “for its modern narration” which according to the jury citation has a “sharp focus that relies on a harmony between images and sound rather than words”

The citation read out by the jury for Siddharth’s film praised the film highly; it reads “We are also sensitive to the new erotica brought to the traditional figure of the desired woman in the history of cinema.”

After a grand beginning of his career, Siddharth is currently working on his first feature film script. He doesn’t want to get into formula ridden world of Bollywood and wants to continue with his experimentation with the medium of cinema.

01 January, 2009

2008: The Year of “World Cinema”

Though world wide web has rendered physical boundaries almost redundant, living in India came with a price tag for film buffs. The unequal distribution of cinematic wealth made us often feel bitter. All the more when our American friends dropped names like Criterion collection and Netflix during every conversation on cinema. We had our pirates, Palika Bazars, bit torrents and nosey street corner DVD rentals, though hardly a competition when it came to quality and accessibility.

Nothing short of a revolution took concrete shapes in 2008. And boundaries of the silver screen got pushed like never before to encompass the whole world.

Signs of the “movement” started showing up in January 2008, when Palador Pictures, launched a five DVD Francois Truffaut collection. This was followed by collections of Akira Kurosawa and Wong Kar Wai. Sooner, NDTV group announced their new venture NDTV Lumiere, a 24 hours world cinema channel, backed by theatrical releases and DVD collection.

By February 2008, the first world cinema channel was already up on air. UTV World Movies, started beaming foreign films directly in our living rooms. A launch marked by advertising blitz, which took everyone by surprise.

Later, the basket got only bigger, notably Shemaroo, Enlighten among others entered the segment.

It was lot more than a co incidence that while the corporate sector was branding their world cinema venture as “movement”, the Federation of Film Societies of India, turned 50. A body, set up in 1959 with Satyajit Ray as its president and late prime minister Indira Gandhi as vice president.

The federation represents more than 300 film societies scattered across the country, where many of us (including me) have seen the very first glimpses of world cinema.

Entry of corporate world cinema distributors, into the field, which was considered the domain of film societies and festivals till date, created new issues. Some distributors tried to pose as new generation film societies, while some announced “why to wait for a film festival” and blamed festivals for dissuading masses from watching foreign cinema by associating them with high arts. On one occasion, a private distributor even asked MAMI film festival to stop screening films that they held rights of, while the prints were provided to the festival by the Spanish culture centre!

Gradually, the societies and private players learnt to live together. As they understood that their paths met quite often. Besides, they realized that societies and festivals could also add to their revenue and provide them access to an audience that they will take months to reach out to otherwise.

The brighter side of the private players’ entry was, we were treated to some theatrical releases that we would have been denied of otherwise. NDTV Lumiere chose Orphange to start its theatrical screenings on May 30, 2008. Soon, films like Persepolis, The Secret of the Grain, Three Monkeys, Caramel were released week after week that was unprecedented for Indian theatres!

One of the high points of the year was a traveling film festival of Swedish master Ingmar Bergman. Seven films including Silence, Through a Glass Darkly, Wild Strawberries were screened in six cities in the month of August and September. A treat that cinephiles will long remember the year for.

UTV World Movies while looking for popular elements in the foreign cinema, was presumably an instant hit with masses. Whereas, the old timers got their share of “world movies” through programmes like “Platinum collection” and “50 films you must watch before you die”. The channel screened classics like Three Colours trilogy and new finds such as 13 Tzameti. Interestingly, the channel was screening, Chabrols’s “A Girl Cut in Two” while it was still doing festival round.

Now, the channel has a rival in NDTV Lumiere, that went on air in October, 2008. A channel that rightly boasts an enviable collection handpicked from international festivals.

NDTV Lumiere library lent South Korean master Kim Ki Duk and Finnish maverick Aki Kaurismaki’s collection to festivals, where their retrospectives were held.

How can a world cinema “movement” be complete without “Bicyle Thieves”, the iconic film that inspired an entire generation. Surprisingly, for some reasons the film slipped the attention of any one of the players. Finally, on October 17, 2008, Enlighten Film Society, released it on DVD, making a foray in home video market.

The year 2008 marked an overwhelming beginning of organized world cinema distribution in India. Though, accessibility, information and in some cases quality of projection still remain an issue, lets hope, wrinkles will get ironed out in 2009. And, film societies, festivals and private players will come together to take “world cinema” to every nook and corner of the country.

Nevertheless, the year 2008, has assumed such a significance for world cinema lovers, that it could rightly be called the beginning of a new era. Just switch on your television, visit nearest DVD parlor or a multiplex to see the difference!