I have said before that I didn’t think Slumdog Millionaire deserved all the critical praise being heaped on it, and it may not have even deserved to win Best Picture last night. Then again, given the competition, I don’t see much point in dwelling on that last point. It is fair to say that if the admirers have been too fawning, the critics leading the backlash have missed the point entirely. For example, I think Ezra Klein misses the point when he writes this:
But Millionaire is much worse: An unconvincing and poorly drawn fantasy. The love story makes little sense, and mistakes a near-pathological fixation for romance. The game show vehicle is smart, but undeveloped: It’s a self-conscious narrative gimmick, which is rather the worst kind.
These are all elements that make Slumdog the re-worked Bollywood plot that I have described it as being. I’m not sure that Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy went this route deliberately to re-tell a story that is in many of its details and plot devices so typical of Bollywood, but I think any anti-Slumdog backlash argument that cites these things as the flaws of the movie have missed the important part of the movie. It also misses the function of Bollywood film-making more generally. Modern Bollywood provides fantasies quite deliberately for escapist purposes, which is why most of their relatively big-budget pictures set so many of their song-and-dance numbers in foreign locations and why so many of the stories tend to focus on the love stories of the fabulously wealthy caught up in some affair of the heart in Dubai, Sydney, London, New York (Kal Ho Na Ho, anyone?) or at least at a resort in Goa. The arc of many of these stories takes the character out of Chandni Chowk or its equivalent and sends him into some fabulous world of wealth and success, while many of the others keep the character in the latter world the entire time. To complain that Slumdog has followed this model is to complain that Danny Boyle made a movie in the modern tradition of Indian cinema.
Bollywood used to make many more grim, social realist films that used song to deliver a stark ethical and political message, but the tradition of social critique and reform evident in, say, Pyaasa has not been fashionable for a long time. To some extent, the “Slumdog” part of Slumdog was a nod to that older tradition, while the “Millionaire” part was an acknowledgment of a certain “Shining India” aesthetic that has been gradually taking over the major productions for the last ten or fifteen years. Yes, of course, this was a British production in India, and not “really” a Bollywood film, but it seems to have been governed by the conventions of Bollywood all along.
For example, treating near-pathological fixation as love (or portraying love as near-pathological fixation) is just what Bollywood movies do, so it is rather fitting that this is what Slumdog does as well. I’m saying this as a fan of Bollywood. Try just about any one of a hundred of the most popular Bollywood movies, but especially Dil Se, the most romantic suicide bomber movie you will ever see, and you will see the same pattern again and again. Dil Se also happened to have a soundtrack composed by A.R. Rahman. Depressing movies featuring Muslim characters seem to be where his musical genius really takes off.
Like the Dil Se soundtrack, the Slumdog soundtrack is an example of a fusion style mixing techno-pop with more traditional-style Hindi songs. One reason that more people seem to have been caught up with the music of Slumdog than with the music for other dramas set in India is that it is more high-energy and fast-paced than many of the others. For example, take the similarly creative soundtrack for Monsoon Wedding last decade–its soundtrack was much more melancholy and quiet accompanying what was a comparably lighter, much less harrowing story. Slumdog’s soundtrack also has the draw of celebrity with M.I.A. as one of the collaborators, plus several well-known playback singers, such as Alka Yagnik, who perform the Hindi songs. Fareed Zakaria wrote in The Post-American World that the culture created by globalization was going to look increasingly like the product of Bollywood, so whether or not you find it satisfying it is likely that we will see more and more of it in years to come.