There is something slightly disproportionate about solemnly analysing popular cinema, so let me ingratiate myself by saying that Slumdog Millionaire is an enjoyable film filled with engaging characters played by likeable actors. It is also a trashy, incoherent film; its advance publicity says that it is a story about Bombay driven by universal emotions (like love) but, in fact, the film’s narrative choices are driven entirely by that more pressing universal thing, the market.
The market? Why should that be a bad thing? The standard Bombay film, after all, is assembled to entertain a target audience. True; the difference is that the Bombay film’s primary viewership understands its language and its milieu whereas Slumdog Millionaire’s intended audience doesn’t. Danny Boyle’s need, therefore, to make a Hindi film for an English-speaking public results in a hybrid so odd, that it becomes hard for the Indian viewer to do the thing that he so effortlessly does with Ghajini or Om Shanti Om — namely, suspend disbelief.
The framing idea of Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q & A, on which the film is based, is the implausibility of a slum boy knowing the answers to the esoteric and culturally alien questions asked in the quiz show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire or Kaun Banega Crorepati. In both the book and the film, the protagonist from the slums is being interrogated by the police when the story begins, because his success in answering the show’s questions provokes the suspicion that he’s cheating. In the course of his frequently brutal interrogation, he tells the police inspector his life story and narrates the specific experiences in his hectic, scary life that filled his head with random snippets of information and helped him answer questions that would otherwise have been beyond his ken.
The reason the book is so much better than the film is that Swarup’s story is written down and allows you to imagine the way the protagonists look and the way they speak. Indian novelists who write about India in English either invent dialects for their characters that are intended to stand in for how they might speak Hindi or Bengali or Tamil, or content themselves with rendering conversation in neutral, standard-received English. Swarup chooses the latter course and it works very well.
Boyle, because he’s making a film, doesn’t have these options. He chooses to make his film both in Hindi and in English. The sections in Hindi are subtitled, which is reasonable as is the idea of making a film in more than one language. In recent times, there’ve been several Indian films in which the characters switch between English and another language; Jhankaar Beats, Rock On!!, Mr and Mrs Iyer, etc. Starting with his performance in Dev Benegal’s English, August, Rahul Bose has come to epitomize this bilingual genre.
But there’s a difference in the way in which these films deal with the challenge of working in more than one language and the way in which Slumdog Millionaire does. In the desi bilingual film, English is spoken by middle-class or affluent anglophone Indians. The back and forth from English to Hindi mimics the linguistic code-switching that Indians of a certain class perform, and this depends on who they are speaking to as well as the things they’re talking about. So you might ask for a wine-list in English but use Hindi to order a plate of bhelpuri. Likewise, you’ll speak to your son’s school principal in English, but buy fish in Bangla. There’s a contextual logic to bilingualism in India and in Indian films.
In Slumdog Millionaire, however, the characters spend a lot of their time buying fish in English. They speak English whenever Boyle thinks his English-speaking audience needs to follow the story without the distraction of sub-titles. Their decision to switch to English has nothing to do with the action of the film or the situations in which his protagonists find themselves. For example, the device that holds the film together, the police interrogation, is conducted in English. You have Irrfan Khan, the police inspector, interviewing Jamal, the slum boy, in a language that would never, ever have been used in that circumstance. Watching it, you’re always aware of how much better the scene would play in Hindi and how thoroughly the gentrifying presence of English defangs the menace of the thana.
Paradoxically, the film might have worked better if it had been shot entirely in English. Its audiences would have accepted that they were dealing with a dubbed or translated world and would have, as sophisticated audiences do, suspended disbelief. But Slumdog doesn’t let the Indian viewer suspend disbelief because there’s enough Hindi spoken in the film to make the English sequences sound absurd. Ironically, Hindi, which is used here as an art director might use a prop, as authenticating décor, undermines the credibility of the story.
The main characters in the film, Jamal, his older brother Salim and Latika, the love of Jamal’s life, are each played by three actors who represent their infancy, their childhood and their lives as young adults. In their youngest avatars, Boyle lets them speak Hindi; through childhood and young adulthood, they mainly speak English. The switch to English, insofar as it is explained, hinges on Salim and Jamal’s ability to extemporize the language while working as tourist guides at the Taj Mahal.
On the strength of this, we are asked to believe that the boys now talk to each other in the language they learnt to mulct tourists with. We see Salim killing in English, demanding sex from Latika in English and to compound the incongruity, the idiom of the English Salim speaks marks him out as a charter member of the babalog, not the slum child he is meant to be. The transition from child actors who in real life are slum children to young actors who are, just as clearly, middle-class anglophones is so abrupt and inexplicable that it subverts the ‘realism’ of the brilliantly shot squalor in which their lives play out.
Worse still, Dev Patel, who plays Jamal, speaks English with the accent you’d expect from a boy raised in England. Listening to Irrfan Khan, the best actor the Hindi cinema has produced in decades, asking questions in English and Dev Patel, slumdog, replying in NRI English, was surreal; it put me in mind of amateur English theatre in Delhi, where the play died every time an actor opened his mouth. Dev Patel is a fine actor, but he hasn’t been cast in this film because he fits the role he’s playing; he’s in it to supply a cosmopolitan audience with a protagonist they can identify with, a lovable slumdog who cleans up well.
Irrfan Khan has said in an interview that sometimes you need an outsider’s perspective to properly see a world that Indians take for granted. On the strength of Slumdog Millionaire, it’s hard to know what he means, unless he’s speaking of Boyle’s ability to entertain a metropolitan world that’s ready to watch Hindi films as long as they’re made in English. That is something of a talent, but as a consumer of Hindi films, I couldn’t help thinking that a world had been lost in this translation.