Is “Slumdog Millionaire” the single worst “Best Picture” ever? But then, Hollywood’s critical sensibility has been declining for years….

What I said about “Slumdog Millionaire” in what may have been the first Indian review on December 31 was this:

“How sad that “Slumdog millionaire” is SO disappointing!

Slumdog millionaire seemed an excellent idea for this holiday season given all the favourable foreign reviews and awards as well as a jazzy joyous energetic trailer. Sad to say it turns out a pathetic disappointment, just another moralizing caricature of India — at least Katherine Mayo seemed authentic, this has no authenticity anywhere besides a final Hindi song-and-dance routine which at least looks like a Hindi song-and-dance routine. The young Brit Dev Patel in the lead role might turn out to be a good actor when he grows up but seems here to have been plucked out of a school-play and asked to do his best impersonation of Ben Kingsley impersonating an Indian person. The lines given to all the actors from India are completely and consistently hopeless – imagine a Mumbai-mafia boss coming home and asking his moll to make him a sandwich! Real men in India don’t eat sandwiches at home by choice, and a real Indian gangster’s moll would have had hot pakoras or kebabs and rotis waiting for him. Somebody needed to tell this Director a million little things like that, though you realize within minutes of the start that this is not supposed to be at all the real Dickensian tale from modern Mumbai that the trailer makes it out to be. Rather it seems to be something intended to pander to silly Western stereotypes about India that come most easily to mind — poverty and bad sewage systems in the slums, Hindus assaulting Muslims, men assaulting women and children, gangsters plucking out eyes of beggar-children, tourists being robbed at the Taj Mahal, incompetent call-centre staff mishandling calls, gangsters, gangsters and more gangsters and every one of them cheap and worthless, not a Bill Sykes or Nancy or Fagin among them. Even the throwaway lines peddle Western trivia mentioning Benjamin Franklin and even the Edinburgh Festival. We can only imagine how wonderful a real movie might have been with this same story-line. It should have been done in Hindi or Mahratti throughout with subtitles, and aimed at Indian critics not Western ones. Shekhar Kapur would have done splendidly though even the average Bollywood song-and-dance man might have done well enough. Slumdog millionaire has practically no art in it because the presence of any art requires an honesty of purpose, and that means, first of all, no pandering to the audience. The slight art that exists in it comes from the street-children who at least run like the wind.”

On February 2 I added a postscript

“It is amusing to hear it said in the American and British press that there has been a “smear campaign” against this movie, and one moreover that allegedly started in India. I think my December 31 review here at this site was the very first from India, and it had absolutely nothing to do with anything other than disappointment that a nice New Year’s Eve was rather spoilt by watching a badly made movie. Far from there being some kind of mysterious “smear campaign”, there appears to have been an obvious, calculated and paid-for promotional campaign in the guise of “Entertainment News” conducted on India’s influential English-language TV channels — without a single serious contrary opinion being allowed to be expressed. If the movie receives awards, it may speak more about the quality of the awards than about the movie itself. But of course there has been a general hyperinflation in awards all over in recent decades, from Nobel Prizes downwards.”

Now that it has won Hollywood’s highest acclaim (giving it its 15 Andy Warhol minutes in the limelight), I am led to wonder if it might be the single worst “Best Picture” ever. I cannot admit to having seen all  the movies below and yes there are several real  turkeys among them, especially in recent times,  but I would have to put it right up there with “Dances with Wolves” and ahead of “Titanic”.

1951 An American in Paris
1952 The Greatest Show on Earth
1953 From Here to Eternity
1954 On the Waterfront
1955 Marty
1956 Around the World in Eighty Days
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai
1958 Gigi
1959 Ben-Hur
1960 The Apartment
1961 West Side Story
1962 Lawrence of Arabia
1963 Tom Jones
1964 My Fair Lady
1965 The Sound of Music
1966 A Man for All Seasons
1967 In the Heat of the Night
1968 Oliver!
1969 Midnight Cowboy
1970 Patton
1971 The French Connection
1972 The Godfather
1973 The Sting
1974 The Godfather Part II
1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1976 Rocky
1977 Annie Hall
1978 The Deer Hunter
1979 Kramer vs. Kramer
1980 Ordinary People
1981 Chariots of Fire
1982 Gandhi
1983 Terms of Endearment
1984 Amadeus
1985 Out of Africa
1986 Platoon
1987 The Last Emperor
1988 Rain Man
1989 Driving Miss Daisy
1990 Dances with Wolves
1991 The Silence of the Lambs
1992 Unforgiven
1993 Schindler’s List
1994 Forrest Gump
1995 Braveheart
1996 The English Patient
1997 Titanic
1998 Shakespeare in Love
1999 American Beauty
2000 Gladiator
2001 A Beautiful Mind
2002 Chicago
2003 The Lord of the Rings
2004 Million Dollar Baby
2005 Crash
2006 The Departed
2007 No Country for Old Men
2008 Slumdog Millionaire

Hollywood needs to look at the list and then look in the mirror (which it does all the time except it probably sees nothing back).

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

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10 Responses to “Is “Slumdog Millionaire” the single worst “Best Picture” ever? But then, Hollywood’s critical sensibility has been declining for years….”

  1. Mark Antony Says:

    This was a lousy movie made by a British director who has not got over his colonial hangover.

    The gratuitous depiction of poverty in the film was sickening,

    Any Indian who cannot see through what this Brit is trying to do should be ashamed of themselves.

    India is too full of these pseudo-intellectuals and these pseudo-do-gooders who can really not look beyond assuaging their own guilt by claiming a cathartic experience while watching this utterly despicable movie.

    Shame on Danny Boyle and shame on every Indian who thinks this was a piece of art.

  2. drsubrotoroy Says:

    Apropos the astute comment above, our whole “Governing Class” in Delhi has shown what I have elsewhere called its “continuing intellectual and moral bankruptcy” by exulting in the award.

  3. Syed Hasnain Says:

    Thankyou for this most honest and candid analysis. Your writing alone has taken away a lot of anguish from my mind. The funny thing is that there are numerous movies made in India by Indian directors and artists, that stand way taller than much of what was nominated this year and before.

    I am happy for A.R. Rahman, and in my opinion he has always been a world class Musician/Director, although his work in Slum Dog is very dilute as compared to much of his own music in the past.

  4. onely Says:

    Thanks for this interesting point. I was surprised to hear about the inauthenticity, for example the sandwich. I had thought that there were a number of native Indian advisors on staff (including that codirector who supposedly got shortchanged because she’s an Indian woman in the world of white male directors); I would have expected them to catch those kind of things, but maybe not. Although why anything about this movie shocks me after how they mutilated Latika’s role in the original book, I don’t know. I absolutely agree that they should have used subtitles. I love subtitles. But the rumor is that American (Western?) audiences don’t like to read. I think this is patronizing and foolish–give them a chance! But in the meantime, I bet the producers didn’t want to endanger their Oscar chances: looking at your handy list above, it’s easy to see that almost none, or none, of them used subtitles–those sorts of films are relegated to “best foreign film.” Why not just consider foreign films alongside that Hollywood junk? And actually, if you think about it, Hollywood is about as foreign a place as you can get. . .

  5. drsubrotoroy Says:

    I am most grateful for the two kind comments above. I agree with Mr Hasnain’s opinion about AR Rahman’s talent.

    Yes, and regarding Lathika’s role, if in the book (which I have not read) the role is that she becomes a lawyer who comes to save Jamal from police torture, I see no explanation for why it was excluded other than a perverse desire to dwell on the muck and not on any real success (like a transition out of poverty).

    As for the torture stuff itself, that kind of torture was carried out or threatened to be carried out by the Bush-Blair duo in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib — by contrast, when Mumbai’s police on November 26 2008 in fact captured a misguided Pakistani youth who had just indulged in terrorist mass-murder killing 20 or 30 people with gunfire and grenades, Mumbai’s police treated him humanely, produced him before a magistrate, and gave him due process. The result was that he in natural gratitude sang like the proverbial canary, and allowed India to produce the dossier regarding the terrorist attack on Mumbai. I have written extensively about this here, which coincided with the release of this dreadful movie.

    The Oscar documentary award went to a splendid film about helping children with cleft lip deformities — and that should get far more attention!

  6. ruchi Says:

    I am a student of literature at Delhi University; when I first watched the movie, I thought it an average movie and that better movies have been made in India. After its 8 Oscars, I thought I must have missed something positive. But it has certainly ignored positive aspects of Dharavi slum area — which is teeming with cyber cafes,mobile retailers and pottery-makers. A gross injustice to show only the filth and neglecting the talent and life in indian slums. But when top national politicians congratulated the cast and crew, I was really really confused and seriously might have gone crazy had I not read your article! I am glad there are people who recognise Western stereotyping as negative. I am happy for Rahman and Gulzar but don’t understand why they should hanker after international recognition.

  7. Pat Says:

    I think that sometimes one can just become overly critical. I think it’s a usual love tale and a great entertainer. Cinema is nothing but entertainment.

  8. Howard Says:

    This review is right on, including the pathetic list of Best Pictures. I count five or six good ones in the last 30 years.

  9. myutterances Says:

    The film was far from reality and did not deserve to be placed in the list of Oscar winner movies. Your review of the movie is the most honest that I have read till now.

    I couldn’t go to any multiplex to watch the movie due to an injury. I watched it on DVD pretty late. And I was shocked by what I saw.

    When Slumdog won so many Oscars I was sure that the Oscars were not fair. People could lobby hard and ensure their win.

    I had my objections to the very title of the movie. All through the movie, the attempt was to show India in a poor light. I was stunned to see reaction of the film fraternity on the movie.

    One self-proclaimed king of the Hindi film industry even went ahead to criticize a veteran actor for rejecting the role of the anchor that was played by Anil Kapoor. When the anchor tries to influence the contestant and leaks the answer (the wrong answer) does it not convey that a successful quiz show like KBC could have been played unfairly? Anil Kapoor’s character was negative.

    Do our film actors loathe slum dwellers as much as it was depicted in Slumdog Millionaire? I guess, yes. Otherwise, how could the film fraternity appreciate the erroneous story line and falsified depiction of events and characters?

    In fact I appreciate the British director for his observations and understanding of the mindset of Indian and other audiences. He knew what would sell, and what would get him into the list of Oscar winners. I wonder how many more generations it would take for them to overcome the colonial hangover.

    It is not new for the western world to laugh at India. They wouldn’t leave a chance to denigrate our country. Sadly, it has become a fad with some Indians to stand criticism of India by any means; And to voice their ‘intelligent’ views against those who raise objections to any attack on India’s culture, the place and the people.

    Ringa Ringa is a sleazy song. I would call it one of the sleaziest from Hindi films released in the last few years. As Jagjit Singh opined, Jai Ho is certainly not Gulzar’s best piece. He has penned awesome lyrics for Hindi films right from his first song – Mora Gora Aang Laile (for Bandini). It is good that A R Rehman won himself and India an Oscar for the music. But his previous works, like Roja are far superior.

  10. ninjanurse Says:

    I have followed the real stories about the two young actors and their families, which was more interesting than the movie. There were scores of other children in the film, yet not a word about them or their neighborhood. I won’t forget the scenes of thin children climbing mountains of urban trash–this changed my perspective. But the movie wasn’t much, without the children it wouldn’t have any interest at all.


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