It was inevitable that there would be backlash against Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire winning eight Oscars. There’s nothing like awards—even the possibility of awards—to bring out the naysayers. Now, before anyone jumps on me, I’m not saying that everyone who has denigrated the film started disowning it the minute it became popular, though there certainly are folks who often operate on that principle. And to some degree it’s understandable. There’s a certain appeal about being one of a select group who know about, understand or appreciate a film, a rock group, a filmmaker, a book, what have you. That feeling spawns a sense of camarederie—a sense of being a member of an exclusive club. That becomes hard to maintain when “everyone” knows about it. When a movie virtually sweeps the Oscars and crosses the $100 million mark at the box office, it’s no longer the same. The movie is, but the perception isn’t.
My own relationship with the film started a little peculiarly. I was lobbying to try to get Baz Luhrmann’s Australia and Gus Van Sant’s Milk for the opening and closing night films for last year’s Asheville Film Festival. When our booker, Greg Gardner, threw out the title Slumdog Millionaire, I winced. Then I found out it was by Danny Boyle and my interest was piqued—until I read the plot, which didn’t interest me at all. Early word from other festivals helped restore my curiosity. The fact that it was Danny Boyle kept me cautiously optimistic, but I still didn’t know what we were getting into. That changed on closing night when the film ran. It wasn’t just that the film blew me away—though it did—it was the amazing vibe it created with the audience. Here we were on the final night of the festival and the energy was simply electric.
I didn’t get to see the film again till Fox Searchlight sent out screeners to critics for awards consideration. OK, so that wasn’t that long, but this was one of those rare films that I would have gone to see again the next day had that option been available. For me, it turned out to be a case where the movie just got better with each viewing—where little details in the structure stood out the more you watched. I was sold on it long before it became popular. When it did become popular, I was pleased, though having some feel for Asheville moviegoing taste, it never occurred to me that it wouldn’t be embraced more than not locally. I hadn’t really thought about it in a greater scope until the Oscar nominations—and then what followed.
After the awards, I started hearing from readers and friends who just didn’t think Slumdog was really that good. And, of course, Salman Rushdie weighed in on it in print with a witheringly negative point of view. I honestly don’t think that any of these negative responses were insincere, nor do I think they were motivated by the film’s popularity or accolades. I do think that popularity and accolades caused them to speak out, but that’s fair enough. I’d go so far as to say it’s desirable—if only because I’m immediately distrustful of things that no one takes exception to. (I actually like the fact that there are people who walk out of Slumdog because they’re appalled by the depictions of poverty and police torture in the earlier parts of the film.)
What interests me most about the criticisms leveled against Slumdog lies in the general nature of the remarks. Each of the critiques rests—at least in part—on the concept of realism. The idea is that the film isn’t realistic. That may be true in itself, but I don’t actually know any admirers of Slumdog that prize it for its realism. This raises the question in my mind as to whether art should be limited to the realistic. If that was true we’d have to rewrite not just the history of film, but the history of art in general.
It also brings up the question of what we mean by realism, and whether it’s possible to be realistic in the strict sense when dealing with art, especially narrative art. Even documentaries have a long history of…let’s call it bending reality to suit the artist’s purpose. Never forget that when the grandfather of the documentary film, Robert Flaherty, made Man of Aran back in 1934, he found conditions on the islands somewhat less primitive than he expected. Rather than compromise his vision, he simply recreated the conditions he wanted. As a result, he came up with a film that was true to what he wanted to convey. Traditional notions of realism didn’t enter into it. It’s just possible that art needs only be realistic on its own terms—to an individual sense of realism.
Now, one friend of mine dismissed the film as “Bollywood Capracorn”—in large part, I suspect, because he knew it would push my buttons. (And I’ve forgotten to tell him that my critic partner Justin Souther pointed out afterwards that this was coming from a guy who had liked The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which may or may not be relevant.) My immediate response was, “Frank Capra never had this much style on the best day he ever had,” which earned me the accusation of being “dazzled by bright, shiny objects.” I was mildly miffed. I may even have been perturbed.
I wasn’t bothered by the accusation per se. (When your favorite filmmakers are Ken Russell, Richard Lester, James Whale, Rouben Mamoulian and Josef von Sternberg, you have to expect to be subjected to a degree of abuse based on your obvious penchant for stylized filmmaking.) What bothered me was the apparent disregard for style as having bearing on the judgment of a film. In my mind, filmmaking style is as important as any other factor. When we talk about the greatness of John Ford’s westerns, we’re talking about his panoramic vistas and the way he uses them as much as we’re talking about content. James Whale’s sense of theatre and his improbably complex tracking shots have as much bearing on what we think of as a James Whale film as any recurring theme. These things are style. And they count.
Look for a moment at the film that is generally considered the greatest film ever made—Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Its greatness rests more on its stylistic achievements—which extend to its structure, and, yes, structure is also style—than on its storyline. What we’re examining when we take Kane apart and study it (and it’s precisely because Kane lends itself to being taken apart that we study it in the first place) isn’t the story, but the manner in which Welles presents that story. If the style of Kane is important, there’s no reason the style of Slumdog Millionaire should be any less so. Now, how—or even whether—you respond to its style is another matter altogether, but you really can’t deny that it has style.
Truth to tell, Slumdog is an interesting mix of styles. Setting aside its time-shifts and visual cross-references (there are images in the first few minutes of the film that refer to events we will only see in the last few minutes), Boyle has crafted a work that mixes hand-held camerawork with scenes that could be described as extremely formalist in nature, he juxtaposes expressionistic angles with straightforward composition. He integrates fantasy and reality to a point where the separation is sometimes unclear. And he manipulates imagery in both speed and sometimes direction. The mix may not be your dish of tea, but, for me at least it results in a rich tapestry that finally feels unified.
Dismissing the film as a fable—which I’ve seen done—seems shortsighted to me. In some ways, this goes back to the concept of it being unrealistic. However, this goes even further than noting that the source novel has less of the childhood romance angle and contains a bitter ending (that I find more contrived than realistic), or the idea that the whole film is romanticized. No, this strikes at the very core of an artistic perception that has always seemed to me to be extremely limited and limiting—the idea that a film is automatically less important if it isn’t downbeat and awash in weighty themes. Frankly, I think that’s nonsense. There are too many long-forgotten weighty movies and too many still-remembered lighter ones for that to ring true.
In the case of Slumdog—even with its happy ending (a happy ending that costs much)—it’s my belief that Boyle has managed to strike an amazing balance. I wouldn’t call the film lightweight, but rather a work that mixes light and dark as deftly as it blends styles. There are some pretty heavy themes buried in the movie’s story, but Boyle sets them side by side with a bracing sense of humanity. I’m hard-pressed to find fault with that—any anyone familiar with Boyle’s work would hardly be surprised by it. In another sense, you could say that had Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy retained the book’s ending, it would not have been a Danny Boyle film.
The truth is that, yes, Slumdog Millionaire is romantic and it is sentimental and it doesn’t end in despair. I missed the memo where these were apparently deemed bad things that automatically strip a film of greatness. I am not sorry that I missed that memo.