The angriest munchkin ever alive + two lonely munchkins desperately in love = Bollywood bonanza.
In Ghajini, A. R. Murugadoss’ Hindi remake of his Tamil blockbuster of the same name which was in turn ‘inspired by’ Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Aamir Khan is a man who lives each day fifteen minutes at a time. A trauma victim with a rare form of short term memory loss, Khan’s Sanjay Singhania wakes up every morning in a world he does not recognize and reminds himself to solve the mystery surrounding his last real memory – the voice of his girlfriend whispering a name into his ear.
In Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, young Jamal (Dev Patel) lives a life in the Mumbai slums that most people would rather not examine too closely. Cruelly orphaned when still a toddler, he survives solely on the chutzpah of his elder brother who is a natural born hustler. The only thing he knows for sure is that he and his childhood sweetheart were meant to be.
In Bollywood terms, they’re both stories of men who’ve gone crazy in love.
Ghajini‘s Sanjay isn’t just trying to find out what happened before the world went blank: his need for revenge is a compulsion that simply cannot lead to closure of any kind. It gives him no pleasure, he has to actively remind himself of its very existence to remember its importance, and I found its so-called happy ending the most wrenching moment of its entire duration.
Slumdog‘s Jamal is the little boy who’s grown up watching men like Sanjay on massive screens, whistling with appreciation when he bludgeons the bad guy to death even after being skewered in the stomach with an iron spike. He remembers everything that has happened to him in excruciating detail (ultimately to his advantage) but unlike the heroes for whom he is willing to wade through excrement, he has chosen to focus on the most positive thing in his life.
Slumdog is in fact a movie that used to be made very often in Bollywood (offhand, I can think of Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt and Shahrukh Khan starring in versions of it over the past 20 years) about a poor boy who falls in love with a girl whose worth is measured by her body. But he can see into her soul and knows that they are meant to be together and will move heaven and earth to make it so.
And this is what makes Slumdog so interesting to me. Other Western directors have cited Bollywood as an inspiration but it generally boils down to “big shiny spectacle with lots of singing and dancing”. On the bright surface, this is true. But the best Bollywood movies, or even the plain well-made ones, manage to wrap up some complex ideas in their tinsel – they’re morality tales about the triumph of good over evil, ethics over lucre, family over convenience; they talk about destiny and free will, the importance of religion, the compulsions of poverty, the dangers of ambition, gender and society, jealousy and romance…
It’s just that it’s a traditional form of storytelling where, say, a director’s exploration of individual freedom, poverty and rebellion is far more likely to result in a three hour movie about a rich father who will not allow his pampered princess to marry her poor unemployed lover which then forces them to elope, than a four hour docudrama about the life of Che Guevara. And if they did make a movie about Che, then you can bet your ass there would be a song in the jungles where a vamp would shake her booty and then Che and Fidel would sing a song about their friendship. Why? Because it’s more fun that way, bozo!
The big disconnect between Hollywood and Bollywood over the years is that they’ve each pretty much lost the ability to juggle – Hollywood seems to find it increasingly difficult to make movies about big ideas without getting suffocatingly somber about it, and Bollywood seems to have found it easier to simply retreat deeper and deeper into fantasy-land. This is why movies like Rang de Basanti and The Dark Knight are greeted with swooning hysteria – they’re good, but they’re not half as fantastic as the hype would suggest until you put them into the context of this age.
Perhaps Boyle and Murugadoss are two directors who’re perfectly suited for this moment, then.
Boyle’s camera has an astonishing ability to lightly skim over all the most soul-crushing violence one human being can inflict on another, from torture to maiming to prostitution to you name it, and focus tightly on the emotion that drives the scene. I don’t know enough about the filmmaking process to know whether this stems from his technical brilliance but it’s something that struck me about Trainspotting as well. The violence in this movie is terrible, and it becomes all the more horrendous because you feel it more than you see it.
For example, long after the movie was over, I kept thinking about the other kids with whom the baby Jamal and Latika lived, the ones who didn’t get to awkwardly dance with the love of their life on a deserted VT terminal, and what became of them. And, of course, I knew what had become of them because I grew up in India and those kiddies in the movie are the real life children tapping on your car window at the traffic signal.
Somehow Danny Boyle, a very British director, has managed to master the one thing about Indian existence that drives a lot of outsiders absolutely and volubly nuts – the ability to look the worst aspects of human existence in the face and then look past it. I don’t think even Indians can adequately explain how they do this (I can’t anyway) although there is never a dearth of bullshit explanations (it’s Hindu belief in karma! it’s the extremes of climate! it’s the uncertainty of life in a hard country! it’s about reincarnation!) so I have to say I’m impressed that Boyle and writer Simon Beaufoy were able to swing it. Perhaps co-director Lovleen Tandon has something to do with it though.
Under Murugadoss’ direction in Ghajini, however, the violence becomes a good deal more explicit and as it does, it becomes more cartoon-like. Throughout the movie, he uses old-school masala tricks to explain who the characters are and what they’re doing – the villain is called “Dharmatma” and is a man whose powerful tentacles extend beyond the shadows of crime, the heroine is chirpy with a heart of gold, the IT magnate hero travels in cavalcade of limousines signifying his wealth, the annoying busybody medical student with the sticky fingers and boundary issues apologizes because she has unwittingly thrust a spoke in the wheels of justice, etc.
The violence when it happens is brutal, graphic, shocking and forgettable. People die all the time in a variety of ways and they don’t really mean anything whatever their motivations might be. It’s like the victims in a zombie movie.
I connected a great deal more with the romance between Sanjay and Kalpana with its fairly slow build-up and grisly end, than the revenge sequences which basically hinged on Aamir Khan contorting his face and asking me to care when I didn’t. (I’m sorry but when he broke free of those ropes and roared at the policeman, I roared too – with laughter. Just look at him in that pic!) The only explanation I can offer is that I believed the movie when it told me Kalpana was a wonderful human being, whereas Sanjay was just as one-note as all those nameless men he killed.
Both movies end in a reunion – Slumdog Millionaire‘s warmed my cold heart, Ghajini‘s turned my heart into a popsicle.