Readers would have noticed that I have been conspicuously quiet about what certain circles are calling “The Greatest Oscar Scam Ever” – at least since another notable slumming tour-de-force Crash upset Brokeback Mountain as best picture, a few years ago. I guess I was taking time to gather my true feelings about Slumdog Millionaire while diligently trying to avoid all the hubris surrounding the success of the movie.
As any fan of 007 scripter Paul Haggis’ intense portrayal of L.A.’s seedy underbelly would proclaim, Crash was a incisive study of the complexity of human relationships and our helplessness in the hands of fate and chance. The way seemingly different lives and incidents come together in Crash is probably the best cinematic representation that I have seen, of the dance of fate. Very similar to what Jamal accedes to at the end of Slumdog…”It was written…”. Very familiar.
The similarities don’t end here. Both movies – though Slumdog to a greater extent – are based on lives and incidents most on the Oscar panel would never experience first hand. Pivotal moments in both rely on the shrapnel of human emotion left behind when the privileged and the under-privileged worlds collide. Both have a low budget film-noir feel – thus completing the experience of “slumming” for an awestruck audience. But if I were to choose between the two – I would choose Crash as the better movie. Pity they weren’t released in the same year – the Oscar war would have been better viewing than either movie! 🙂
So why did Slumdog win? If you forget for a second that this was a “foreign” film made in and about Mumbai, it was essentially a collection of every Bollywood cliche’ stiched together in a very slick manner by a great filming crew, and painted over by world-standard cinematography (still nothing to beat Bhansali’s “Black” or even “Lagaan”) and average music by Rahman. The movie winning 8 oscars sounds as preposterous as a boy from the slums winning 2 crores in a game show. Maybe it was written…
I remember catching a feature in October on BBC, about Danny Boyle’s road to the Oscars, a month before the film’s global release. Special screenings, breakfast meetings, script readings… tirelessly flying from Seattle to Singapore – creating carefully orchestrated hype around a movie about the underdog. Yes, it was written and all “i’s” were dotted and “t’s” were crossed. The topic of the movie itself could not have been more vicarious. With the world facing its worst recession in history, only the most cold-hearted capitalist would disregard a movie about the rise of the under-privileged.
The Oscar committee has always striven to distance itself from populism – mostly driven by a combined guilt felt by brilliant artists having sold their artistic souls for Malibu beach-houses. So when a movie set in one of the world’s most infamous slums (probably after the “favellas” of Rio), with an exotic star cast and intriguing music arrived at the doorsteps of committee members, only the bravest could have chosen a gay-rights flick or a movie about European debauchery over that. I am confident that it would have been a tough toss-up between Benjamin Button and Slumdog… but eventually the one with the much lower budget, social message and expletives in a foreign language won. Never mind the fact that Brad Pitt gave a performance of a lifetime, and that David Fincher dexterously put together a delicate movie in reverse time line – in a way that might not ever be recreated again.
Slumdog Millionaire did not just deserve Oscars. It was written for the Oscars. It does not matter if you or I like it. It does not even matter if the Oscar committee liked it. It had a boy who jumped into a pile of faeces, and rose to be a millionaire in a world which tried to destroy him again and again. A world inhabited by you, me and anyone above the poverty line. Honoring the other side with the greatest recognition in the field of visual arts, has just helped us sleep better at night.