Sunday, December 6, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire and Luck By Chance: A Rant Re-Posted

And here is a re-post of a rant I wrote about the coverage of Slumdog Millionaire and Luck By Chance. It ties into my rebuttal of the Newsweek piece that I posted a couple of weeks ago.

The original posting date was February 3, 2009.

The last couple of weeks have exploded with Slumdog Millionaire coverage and the more I read, the more I’m frustrated by the misunderstandings and the enthusiasm for what was really just an average film. From the weighty, upwardly mobile middle classes come the complaints about “poverty porn.” There is no place for stark depictions of the underclass in the bright, shiny new India – best to keep this swept under the rug. Let us deal with our own. From the slums themselves come the protests over the word “Slumdog” – seen as an insult by the slumdwellers, as one more indignity heaped upon them. To top it all off, a certain segment of the Bollywood industry is angry that the film getting recognition for the international community as “Indian.”

Each of these arguments has merit. Slumdog Millionaire does dwell on life in the slums, use of English in the film – especially the word “Slumdog” - does show the alienation of those who live in the slums from the new modern India, and it is unfair that a film directed by a white British man for a Western audience gets more international acclaim than any of the films made in India, by Indians, and for Indians. However, I don’t feel that it’s my place to comment on any of that. I’m not Indian or of Indian descent, although I have been following the controversies with interest. What I’m concerned about, in my small corner of Bollywood fandom, also ties into the recent critical acclaim for Luck By Chance.

Both Slumdog Millionaire and Luck By Chance have been praised for being “realistic”. Yet, while I suppose that it is possible – though highly improbable – that a young man from the slums could win a TV trivia contest or a struggling actor without an industry Godfather could become an overnight superstar, I think that what “realistic” is really code for is a Hollywood-style narrative, with special bonus points understated acting. In the critical praise for these movies, I read a dislike of the hodge-podge masala style of narrative and the melodramatic acting that goes with it. Audiences would seem to agree with me about the appeal of the Hollywood-style of narrative and neither Slumdog nor Luck By Chance seems to be doing all that well at the box office. (The hubris at calling at single narrative thread “realistic” while the masala approach of cramming in a variety of types of scenes is deemed “fake” has always made me angry. Life doesn’t have a narrative thread – isn’t life a mixture of things that happen to us?)

So, where does this critical dislike of what I would consider common elements in popular Hindi film come from? The Hollywood indicators of what makes a good film have never been accepted by the mainstream audiences, so why are critics falling all over themselves to praise these two Hollywood-style films? And am I suddenly less intelligent for enjoying the over-the-top and song-packed films over the “realistic” Hollywood-based critical darlings? Do I need to live in fear that Bollywood will all of a sudden stop making good masala films like Ghajini or Kaho Naa Pyaar Hai in favor of the middlebrow fare I ran away from Hollywood to escape? (At least I have my Kannada films where they use special effects for their intended purpose - dancing in outer space.) Maybe the critics need to get in touch with what the film-going public actually wants to see – an emotional story that re-unites a family, two lovers, sets right the moral balance, involves plenty of slapstick, a girl (or guy) in a skimpy outfit, lots of good music, and a cameo or two from Shahrukh Khan.

This isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy different or experimental films. I loved No Smoking, which I think was almost universally panned and there is always a place for small films like that or for self-referential films like Jaan-e-Mann or Tashan. I just don’t want to see everything I love about Bollywood thrown out in a chase for critical acclaim from the West and Western-educated critics. Producers, keep making Singh is Kinng’s and Ghajini’s and you’ll be crying all the way to the bank!

And besides, Luck By Chance, Slumdog Millionaire, and, dare I add, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na are neither different nor experimental. They are average movies that are just more Western in style than a typical Bollywood movie.

And this brings me to my last point, Chandni Chowk to China did poorly with both audiences and critics. Why? I’m going to admit now that I saw it twice and liked it even better the second time and my love of Akshay Kumar played only a partial role in that. I was having a hard time figuring out why the audiences hated it (except the one guy who shares my tastes in film: Raj of Raj & Pablo) and the conclusion I came to was this – Hollywood. Produced by a Hollywood company, it seems entirely plausible that a large segment of the audience reacted negatively to the Hollywood-style promotional campaign – overexposure before the film came out. The other problem was the foiled expectations of the middle class audiences expecting something serious – this was coming from Hollywood, after all – they instead received an Akshay Kumar movie and were unable to process the silliness.

This left audiences who are me: in love with Akshay Kumar, able to handle a giant advertising campaign without getting too disgusted, and expecting a ridiculous over-the-top comedy with serious melodrama elements. Sadly, audiences who are me cannot save a movie from bombing.

In conclusion, critics need to start reviewing what their audience actually cares about and Warner Brothers needs to hire me to prevent them from making the same kinds of mistakes. Audiences who are me cannot save a Chandni Chowk to China once it’s out there but we can certainly tell you not to promote it to the West, not to overdo promotions in India, and to make sure that you don’t cut out the songs.


veracious said...

You lost me on CC2C. That was just a bad film in my eyes. I was prepared for crazy masala (silliness in style of Manmohan Desai or something) with kung fu action contained, but the plot was simply bloody boring, Akshay's character was too remarkably stupid to be relatable or fun to watch and they didn't even give me good kung fu.

Now, I'm sure the marketing could be a key factor in why it didn't succeed but let's just say I wouldn't put it all down to that. There's dumb comedies that work splendidly and then there are ones that don't, and a lot of people who can enjoy dumb comedies will agree with me CC2C belonged to the latter category.

Filmi Girl said...

@veracious I must be in the extreme minority of people who enjoyed CC2C. Part of the problem was the marketing, for sure, and part of it was probably that they tried to go "too Hollywood" on film itself - cutting out song picturizations, etc.

But, I actually liked Akshay's stupid character and I thought the plot was fun. Ranvir Shorey and Mithun were good... the songs that were left in were enjoyable. I don't know... maybe it's that high/low brow thing I love that most other people can't stand. *shrugs*

Amol said...

hmm, I thought Luck By Chance WAS different and "experimental", whatever that means. The vibe that used to be alternative cinema in the 80s now manifests in Page 3 or Luck By Chance (or Oye Lucky). I'm glad that filmmakers are still making non-masala movies today. There is something to be said for art for art's sake. As much as I like a good desi potboiler, I detest the unnecessary dance numbers, the overacting, the idiotic melodrama and the middle-class-Punjabi monoculture fantasy land that makes up the average masala movie.

I do agree with you that the "Hollywood-style" narrative (by which of course, you mean coherence of plot, actual acting and some semblance of realism :-) doesn't work in India. The mass market has always been for the masala movie, because a majority of the people seem to want entertainment. Just like pap like Transformers or 2012. It's just that our mass enteraintment doesn't translate well.

BTW Slumdog was not the best movie of last year, but it was not a bad movie by any measure (I'm a big fan of Danny Boyle's, so I may be prejudiced). It DID show a reality that is never shown in a mainstream Indian movie. Even the old rags-to-riches megahits of the 70s/80s never showed *real* poverty with it's common public toilets and actual villians who'd gouge a child's eye out (because yes, those things do happen). I am just defending the movie here, not the hype it generated in the West.

Love your blog, but I'm afraid we'll probably never agree on movies. I saw Aladin on your recommendation and chile that movie was baaaaad ! :-)


Filmi Girl said...

@amol Yeah, we would probably never agree on films... I thought Luck by Chance was an average film and enjoy dance numbers, overacting, and melodrama.

I know I've said this before but I really don't have a problem with non-masala films, it's just that I don't like people who seem offended by the very idea that there could be something worthwhile in popular entertainment.

Zoya Akhtar can make all the Luck by Chance's that she wants and it's fine by me but I hate to see critics falling all over themselves to praise it because of it's "realism."

I've never seen anyone convincingly defend "realism" as the only legitimate way to tell a story. To me, Aladin was emotionally realistic in a way that Luck by Chance could never be and I liked Aladin much better for that reason.

Of course, we all have different tastes. I only wish that we could all accept that and I could stop writing defensive posts about why "realism" doesn't mean a film is "experimental" or "good."

Amol said...

oh, I in no way want to imply that I *liked* Luck By Chance. I found the main character impossible to relate to.
Conversely, I was able to relate to Aladin's protagonist completely (we shall not dwell on what that means:).

I guess I tend to divorce what I like from what I consider a "good film". Sometimes the twain does meet, but in Indian movies, more often it does not.

Filmi Girl said...

@amol Ooh! Okay - that makes more sense. ;D

I try not to define what makes a "good" film - I just know what I like. That's why I list out favorites and disappointments rather than best/worst.

I still don't think Luck by Chance was anything other than an average film. Not bad/not good but entertaining in bits. I would have found it more "experimental" if Zoya had ditched the Farhan/Konkona storyline completely and just focused on the making of "Dil Ki Aag." THAT could have been my favorite film of the year.

And Ritesh was utterly sympathetic as lonely Aladin, wasn't he...? I might have identified a bit too much with him, too. :)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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