Ghajini, Slumdog Millionaire & Bollywood

05 Jan

Kutte! Kamine! Main tera khoon pee jaaoonga!

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.

PS – Here’re some other people with smart things to say: Beth (one, two), Anne Thompson (one, two), Nida, Ramsu, Memsaab and the Post-Punk Cinema Club.


Posted by on January 5, 2009 in Desipundit, Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video


19 responses to “Ghajini, Slumdog Millionaire & Bollywood

  1. the post-punk cinema club

    January 5, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Gosh, what an intelligent post! But dammit, I’ve come to expect that from you, missy. LOVED this analysis, especially the Slumdog/poverty in India/cinema discussion… My brain is now well-simmering for some HARD THINKING. And oh my goodness, don’t link to my silly Slumdog non-review… it’s just an Anil fest until I actually get the film on DVD and think of something original to say about it! (Or maybe an Anil fest is the only semi-original thing I CAN say about it?!)

    I also had an internal laugh when Aamir flipped out and started growling.

    – the PPCC, “feel-good blog of the MILLENNIUM”

  2. shweta

    January 5, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    I am STILL aping Amir- I walk around growling and popping my eyes out, which tickles my hubby silly 😀 Also do not forge the arm flinging- one fling and huge men are swept off screen- hehe

  3. Nida

    January 6, 2009 at 2:57 am

    I love the way you linked the two together! What you say about Hollywood/Bollywood makes so much sense…if they could only work together…

    Sadly, I think you hit the mark when you say that most Westerners see Hindi films as nothing but melodramatic bonanzas…the emotional depth is way greater than most Hollywood films.

    I agree that the romance ended up being the stand out angle to “Ghajini”..i think that’s why it surprised me so!

    Thanks for the link!:)

  4. dipali

    January 6, 2009 at 6:05 am

    Haven’t seen Slumdog yet.
    Ghajini was a strange fillum- kind of time warp pot boiler variety, The romance had charm, but I found the whole thing rather tedious. Left me feeling low>

  5. memsaab

    January 6, 2009 at 10:28 am

    Wah, Amrita—this is the best and most intelligent review of Slumdog that I’ve seen yet, and I’ve read a lot of them (I’m with the ppcc on the don’t-link-to-my-pathetic-review thing!)

    I love what you have to say about looking past the poverty…for some reason I have that ability too, and it’s what makes me able to embrace India and visiting India as I have. Some friends of mine who can’t do it found Slumdog very hard to take and weren’t able to appreciate it because of that—I don’t think they should probably visit India, either, needless to say.

    Anyway, I can’t explain why I can look past it either…maybe because it’s just so overwhelming that I don’t feel I can take responsibility for it. It’s not that I’m heartless—I once sobbed in a shop in India for a good hour because there was a skin-and-bones puppy dying in the sun outside it (this sent the shopkeepers into a tizzy, but I could not stop crying)…but a single, focused moment like that is harder for me to take than looking at a crowd of skinny, tattered, feral dogs. In the same way a crowd of small children tugging at me is not as bad as one pitiful child would be—and it’s rare that it isn’t a crowd, so it’s easier not to focus on one single heartbreaking individual.

    I’m not sure I’m making myself very clear here….but in any case, wonderful post on your part and thanks for getting my brain going so early in the day.

    ps: still don’t want to see Ghajini…:-)

  6. pitusultan

    January 6, 2009 at 1:00 pm

    “because there was a skin-and-bones puppy dying in the sun outside it ”

    :_( *hugs memsaab*

  7. Vikram

    January 6, 2009 at 5:10 pm

    I think slumdog is more comparable to Deewar. Except for Shashi Kapoor, Latika is his duty, his police ki vardi. Just like Amitabh has to die for Shashi to fulfil his aim, Salim also had to die so that Jamal could get his Latika.

    While Deewar coveys the confusion between family, principles and material well being. Slumdog coveys the same about family, love and money.

    In many ways the main characters of Slumdog are not Jamal and Latika, it is probably Salim, because many slumdogs end up like he does.

  8. Amrita

    January 7, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    PPCC – I MUST link to the “feel good blog the millenium”! Especially after watching Ghajini.

    Shweta – I hope you also shake your head from side to side and say “yaargh” every so often 😀

    Nida – I actually thought Enchanted was a very nice Bollywood movie! Esp in that scene where the girlfriend notes that the prince is saying these OTT romantic lines with no irony at all… it struck a chord.

    Dipali – you should watch Slumdog when it comes out. It’ll take you twice as high as Ghajini dropped you. promise!

    Memsaab – aww, thank you! If your friends couldn’t take Slumdog, then yes – no India for them! You really have to be able to take it, we don’t hide it very well at all. Like Pitu, hugs on the little puppy. 😦 It’s odd but I feel the same way sometimes, the babies and the animals – the ones who can’t express themselves are the worst.

    Vikram – I like the Deewar comparison a lot! And of course, if this had been a real Bollywood movie then Salim would have been the protagonist! Isn’t it interesting what a slight difference in perception can do to a story? Movies like Deewar are all about avenging a past wrong, whereas Slumdog is about getting over the bad stuff and looking forward to the good. Even that scene where he lays out his brother after the dirty trick he pulled – it was over in a matter of minutes.

  9. Aroon

    January 9, 2009 at 3:01 am

    Ghajini: Man it was a disaster.. me being a hardcore aamir fan saw it first day first show n all.. about 20 of us from office went for it.. man it sucked and it was bloody long..

    slumdog: i thought the movie was decent.. not great the way people r saying in firang land.. i had a few issues wid da movie:
    firstly i somehow cudnt connect wid dev and freida.. i felt the kids played their role betta..
    2ndly the movie was all that a firang wanted to see about india and not me as an indian wanted to see..
    3rdly i felt they could have had the whole movie in hindi.. they shudnt have had english..

    Achaa btw lissn to the songs of Dev D.. its kickass. my favs are Aankh micholi, dev chanda theme 1 and 2, nayan tarse, paayaliya and emosanal atyaachar.

  10. PH

    January 9, 2009 at 11:49 am


    Interesting reviews -esp ur characterization of Slumdog as a Hindi film “in spirit” makes it a bit easier for me to go and watch it (i’m one of those who have to try hard to see past the poverty)

    as for Ghajni, i think aamir is increasingly becoming like kamal hassan in many ways (though his CV isnt as impressive) – the sort of actor who takes himself too seriously, slipping down slopes of his narcissism

  11. Amrita

    January 9, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Aroon – I was waiting to know what you thought of it. I wonder if Pops went to see it 😀 It helps if you have low expectations. I knew it was going to be something like what it turned out to be so I found myself liking it way more than I expected.
    As for Slumdog, the fact that you think it should have been entirely in Hindi is why I like it so much. Considering that it was a Brit who wrote and a Brit who directed it, isn’t it amazing that you felt it was so authentic, the English distracted you from it? But maybe someday it will get made in Hindi.

    PH – the poverty is pretty much in your face so be prepared for that but the story is pretty Bollywood, yes. 🙂
    You know, you’ve just hit the nail on the head re: Aamir. That’s pretty much how I’ve felt ever since Aamir took Lagaan to the Oscars. I think his eyes just lit on a new direction and he still hasn’t gotten over it.

  12. Darshana

    January 9, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    Terrific essay, Amrita!! I have been thinking about Slumdog and Bollywood too, and I really admire how you’ve thought about it. I also got extremely excited when I realized that Danny Boyle appreciates and “gets” the Hindi cinema way of story-telling.

  13. Shaikat

    January 9, 2009 at 11:35 pm

    Aroon- Regarding your second point, I don’t think this is what “firangis” want to see, it is what fascinates them. That is the thing they notice most when they come to India and look around. Hell that is what I notice and I used to live there for the first 10 years of my life. But unlike the documentaries that just dwell on the suffering of these poor people and trying to buy sympathy, this movie shows how India is. The slums aren’t a wasteland but rather an assortment of industries and colorful people in some unfortunate circumstances. I think the movie showed what India really is, not what “firangis” want to see or what you want to see.

  14. Mamma Mia! Me a Mamma?!?

    January 10, 2009 at 2:52 am

    I’m a huge Aamir fan, but I’ve been hearing so many negative things about Ghajjini that I just haven’t found the courage to go and see it yet.

    As for Slumdog…I’ll reserve my comments until I actually see it.

  15. deepali

    January 15, 2009 at 5:20 am

    gajhini is avery good movie, Amir khan has acted brilliantly

  16. Filmi Girl

    January 21, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    How have I not been reading your blog? Hi!

    Hi! Interesting comparison of “Ghajini” and “Slumdog.” I’m really looking forward to seeing how Indian audiences react to “Slumdog” and I can’t help but wish that “Ghajini” had been the film Warner Brothers gave wide distribution to rather than CC2C…

  17. Amrita

    January 21, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Filmi Girl – welcome to the blog! I’ve come by yours before but always as a lurker. 🙂
    I think Ghajini would have been awesome as a mainstream release too! Variety had a Bolly-virgin review it and if his reaction was anything to go by, they were looking at a success approaching Muthu-in-Japan levels. Otoh, this is Warner Bros. Anything smart that they do is almost always in spite of themselves.

  18. Filmi Girl

    January 21, 2009 at 4:26 pm

    Lurk away! Although I’m tied to a computer at work and love replying to comments… 🙂

    I must have missed that Variety review… I’ll see if I can find it.

    I read today, though, that Warner Bros. just laid off a lot of people – in the hundreds, I think.

    And if CC2C is part of the reason… well, then, I can’t argue. It really was a stupid decision on their part.

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