I squirmed uneasily as I watched Slum Dog Millionaire take awards after awards on the Oscar night. It was’nt that I was uncomfortable that a British film makers perspective of Indian poverty found favor with the jury– which is what many of my friends are uncomfortable about. My reasons were simpler. I was just awfully bored by the movie.
Indian poverty and the slums – these were the most visible parts of the story, but really, those were just the setting of the story. And the story was potentially pretty dramatic, with its moments of love, betrayal, cruelty and tragedy – and yes, even stomach-churning gross-ness, but somehow the story teller got so enamoured by the setting that he could not see beyond the obvious, and ignored every thing else.
Out of the nine rasas defined in Natya Shastra, there is a ras called the “Vibhatsa” ras. Loosely translated, it stands for ‘Grotesque-ness”. This ras defines the human reaction that brings up the bile.
As I know it, grotesque-ness is best visually described by Goya in his painting called ‘Saturn devours his children”, where he has painted a huge monster eating human flesh, entrails and all, with a gleam in his eye. You cannot watch the picture without feeling sick at the stomach. And yet, yet, the monster has an almost sad and desperate look about him – as if he could not help being what he is, being the monster he is. It is not the monsters fault that he is a monster – and there, lies a story. With the flawless execution of the visual imagery that capture a day in the monsters life, the painters job is done – but as we move forward and seek answers to questions such as what the monster thinks, why did he become the way he did, what made him devour human flesh - Ah, that’s where we need story tellers!
Slumdog Millionaire is movie made in Vibhasta ras, and it is made like a series of paintings, one after the other, one after the other, feverishly and ghoulishly put together – each frame more vibhatsa than the other. Once the series is done, the painter seems to lounge back in his chair and ask – So, was’nt that disgusting? How does your stomach feel now?
What do I say to him? I can only sigh, and look at the watch. I had come to hear a story, and what I saw was a series of pictures. The pictures moved my stomach, but there was no story to move my heart.
For, just where was the story told? Where was the poignancy of the love between Jamal and his lady love? Why was the tragedy of a lost mother rushed by for a glimpse of a blue-painted-boy-as-Ram? Why was the desperation and jealousy missing which must have been an essential part of the story, when Jamaal sees his lady love being kept as a chattel? Where was the celebration of heroism when Jamaal’s brother gives up his life so that Jamaal can finally find love? Where was the ecstasy of love finally found between Jamaal and his lady love? Where was the innocence of hope when Jamaal thinks that if he sings well, he would be out of the hell hole he finds himself? Where was the turning point when Jamaal’s brother hardens his heart and decides to trample over his fellows when in the clutches of the Mama? Where was the bright defiance in the demeanor of Jamaal when he takes on the barbs and leers of the TV Show host?
Am I talking about only acting inadequacies here, which the movie certainly painfully did have? No, it is really about the pace of the story, and where the narrator has chosen to linger. Because that is the point of the story. A movie maker commands a camera and bids it to stay some place and just gloss over some other place – and that’s what makes a camera tell a story, and defines its essence. It is not just what you show, it equally is what you hide - that defines a story.
Amazingly, the movie got an Oscar for editing!!
In Slumdog Millionaire, the movie maker lingered over the grotesqueness, the Vibhatsa, slowly and caressingly as if that was the most important part of the story - and in passing showed the beauty of love and the triumph of life amongst wretched squalor. The movie maker completely fails to imbue the viewer with a sense of pervasive hope that is found in Jamaals life, notwithstanding it being rooted in slums, and his glorious dauntless human spirit that lives on, shining and bright, and loves with a wholesomeness that is both beautiful and innocent. The Movie Maker got the imagery right, but lost the essence of this glorious slum-based life. By a mile.
Mr. Danny Boyle, you are a certainly a good photographer, but a story teller? Nah….
You had such a lovely story on your hands, and you never even told it. You abused the art of movie making and story telling – by showing us mere pictures.