Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Slumdog Millionaire" And "Khuda Kay Liye": Windows Into Modern India and Pakistan

As it happened, I watched "Slumdog Millionaire" and "Khuda Kay Liye" on consecutive days (yesterday and today). Having done so, I feel I am eminently qualified to talk about these two films.

Spoiler alert! These are NOT reviews, but full-blown discussions. If you haven't watched either of these films and wish to do so at some point in the future, then please read no further.

First, let's get the superficial commonalities out of the way. Both films speak about important sociopolitical currents in a subcontinental country. Both are purportedly feel-good stories but are substantively so only for people with double-digit IQs; for the rest of us, the films are dark and a touch depressing. And both have a very overt Manichean sense of good vs. evil suffused in them, which results in rendering both films fantastical as narratives (intentionally so, I might add).

The films, despite these similarities, actually have a great deal dividing them. The first distinction - and most glaringly obvious - is the gulf in class between the two. "Khuda Kay Liye" is not a very well made film. The acting in it is terrible (paritcularly by the Mary character whose British accent is less authentic than Shoaib Akhtar's). The script is only slightly better - it is overly cliched, and the writers clearly thought they were writing for an audience of five year-olds, because they left absolutely nothing to interpret and instead spelled everything out in excruciating explictness. And the screenplay is tragically comical at times - the "'war" scene when the village in Afghanistan is being bombed actually made me laugh, and the torture scenes could have actually contained waterboarding. "Slumdog Millionaire", by contrast, is simply a better product.

This is not to unnecessarily pile on "Khuda Kay Liye". The film's appeal derives not from its quality as an artistic product per se, but for the important themes within Pakistani society it takes head-on. I have always complained about the lack of serious scholarship on (and from) Pakistan, but this pales in comparison to the lack of serious art on (but not from) Pakistan. Pakistan's film industry is essentially defunct. We produce very few plays. The state of painting and photography is better but could be better still. The point to take home is that the film's willingness to take on the moderate vs. extremist divide (even though I am beginning to be convinced that this is a spurious cleavage in Pakistani society) as well as the physical and emotional abuse women (especially in rural areas) are subjected to is bold and much-needed.

That said, the way in which these issues are dealt with leave something to be desired. To explain why, you first have to ask yourself these questions: first, how uncomfortable will the average middle-class Indian be watching "Slumdog Millionaire"? Second, how uncomfortable will the average middle-class Pakistani be watching "Khuda Kay Liye"? If you're like me, you believe that the answer to the first is "quite a bit" and the second is "not that much". The discrepancy, I think, would arise from the fact that in "Khuda Kay Liye" it is made abundantly clear that the "bad guys" in the film (the main Maulvi, the led-astray brother, the father who got his daughter married in Pakistan against her will) exist outside the normative guidelines laid down by Islam and Pakistanis' interpretation of Islam. In other words, these people and their actions are not supported by the vast majority of people in their social sphere. What they do and what they say are portrayed as existing outside "normal" behavior - inaccurately, I might add.

On the other hand, the "bad guys" and their actions in "Slumdog Millionaire" are shown to be exceedingly normal. Communal violence is shown with a numbing sort of expectedness. The widespread poverty of Mumbai's slums is not hidden; if anything, it is brandished proudly as obstacles to surmount for the film's "good guys". Organized crime, begging and prostitution are too shown to be "normal". Thus, there is a more realistic and accepting account of Mumbai's vices in "Slumdog Millionaire" than of Pakistan's in "Khuda Kay Liye". The writers of "Slumdog Millionaire" say of Mumbai: this is the way things are. The writers of "Khuda Kay Liye" say of Pakistan: this is the way things are, but...

My final comments concern the foreground of the two films. Here, "Khuda Kay Liye" edges "Slumdog Millionaire". I liked the fact that "Khuda Kay Liye" ended on a melancholy note - the movie did not deserve a happy ending, and did not get it. I'm happy the main guy ended up mentally disturbed, even if we had to endure the ridiculous "I love USA" markings on the wall in his cell to get there. Meanwhile, "Slumdog Millionaire" ended on too happy a note - the writers should have either given Jamal all the cash or Latika, but not both.

28 comments:

naqiya said...

nicely done ahsan. i watched both movies recently and agree with your points. although the naziruddin shah bits in "khuda kay liye" were quite good i thought. and lets not forget the heart warming scene where the silly white girl and the heroic pakistani man ("in my country, women never pay for their food") find love through song.

also, we did have some greatttttt tv dramas whe i was growing up. remember kashkol? the one about begging in the cities? there were a whole bunch that were very well acted, had great scripts, and really did deal with contemporary socio-political issues head-on. but that was then. i have no idea where things stand with pakistani tv now.

also, since we are talking about movies, have you seen religulous yet? and waltz with bashir?

Ahsan said...

Naqiya:

The Naseeruddin Shah bit was a nice hand overplayed. There were about four different "Alright dude, I GET it" moments in his speech.

The silly white girl was my favorite character. She was so asinine. Dude, if you're going to give up drinking, at least do so for a guy with a little personality. By the way, the whole time I was hoping for Geo to REALLY stretch some boundaries and give us a sex scene with partial nudity with the silly white girl. Alas, I was disappointed.

As for the state of Pakistani non-news TV now, it has descended into a cesspool of soap-opera-ness.

Lastly, I have seen neither of the movies you mention. Haven't even heard of the latter to be honest.

AKS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
AKS said...

@ Ahsan

"The point to take home is that the film's willingness to take on the moderate vs. extremist divide (even though I am beginning to be convinced that this is a spurious cleavage in Pakistani society)" -
I'm already quite convinced.

S and I watched Khuda Kay Liye (KKL) with a group of people, and all of us burst out laughing every time the woman with the British accent tried to say "Daddy."

Enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire (SdM) tremendously. The plot may have been ridiculous and unbelievable but it didn't matter because the movie was entertaining. KKL on the other hand wasn't.

There was a major difference between the main characters of the two movies: the two brothers in SdM were clever; the two brothers in KKL were idiots.

And the characters in SdM were fighting for something we can all relate with, they were fighting for love and a chance at a better life.

KKL glorified human idiocy. No sane person, especially someone who has been taken to the Tribal Areas from London against their will, forced into marriage and then raped by a cousin would want to stay, and bring up their child, in a war torn land.

Moreover, in SdM the bad guys were punished, in KKL the marital rapist brother walked free and his sins were miraculously washed away. The message being he wasn't responsible for his actions (like Pakistanis aren't for theirs?), 'other' people made him do bad things so he should be forgiven. Flimsy argument.

@ Naqiya

I agree with Ahsan in that Naseeruddin Shah's character was over the top.

Moreover, his statement that Muslim women are allowed to marry non-Muslim women is plain wrong. Muslim men can marry Jewish or Christian women but Muslim women can only marry Muslim men.

As for Religulous, I thought it was a sanctimonious piece of shit.
Instead of taking on religious groups that throw their weight around politically i.e. Christian Coalition, he ridiculed all religions and made fun of the beliefs of normal people.

And it just wasn't very funny.

By the way, my views on this topic are best encapsulated by the South Park episode on the warring atheists of the future.

Anonymous said...

Ahsan-
Answer to the question that how uncomfortable will the average middle-class Indian be watching "Slumdog Millionaire"? I was stunned when I watched the movie slum dog millionaire not because I was ignorant about the story but because I was not prepared for watching this brutally honest movie especially with my friends here in U.S. I admit, I hated Boyle’s depiction of Mumbai because I was worried about the reaction of my friends whose impression about India was entirely based on ‘The World is Flat’. I felt very hurt and betrayed because Danny has cruelly stripped Mumbai in front of my peers. He has reinforced the stigma of belonging to the third world country.I wanted to protest against this portrayal of mumbai as people will never accept that we have come here for education and endless opportunities not to get rid of bad economy and raise our standard of living. There were several times when I couldn’t bear to watch it and wanted to run away from the theater. Ultimately, I reluctantly accepted the bitter truth that there is no exaggeration in the movie. Danny has just exposed the harsh reality behind the facade of glittering and prosperous Mumbai filled with glamorous people.Believe me, It was very tough to admit and acknowledge in front of outsiders that yeah, this is who we are and this is Mumbai meri jaan.

Regarding your viewpoint that writer should have either given Latika or cash to Jamal, money was not at all the driving force for Jamal as despite all the adversaries, he never sways from the belief that he and latika are destined to be together. The real reason that Jamal's on the show is to get in touch with Latika,whom he has lost in the chaos of Mumbai, and all he knows is that she watches that show religiously.
By giving both cash and latika, author has given some hope and comfort in this brutal and wretched city.

MYK said...

I think you missed out on what really separates both movies. The essential question when comparing both films:

Who's hotter?

Latika (Frieda Pinto)or Mary / Maryam (Iman Ali)?

Its not even a contest dude. Iman Ali hands down.

AKS said...

@ MYK

No way man, she's got the whole 'girl next door' thing working for her. Please go back and watch the first train station scene.

Ahsan said...

AKS:

Completely agree on the contrast in intelligence b/w the two sets of brothers, and the "Daddy" bits. Laugh out loud hilarious. Also, good job picking up on the lack of accountability/responsibility meme in KKL.

Anon735:

Yup, exactly. And that's what made it a good movie: I KNEW the "World is Flat" crowd would have trouble swallowing SDM, because it presents such a different picture of Mumbai/India than what Indian immigrants/expats are used to seeing in the international media. I loved that it was real, and didn't try to hide anything.

As for the cash/Latika point, I agree with you that he went on the show for Latika. The writers could have brought that point home by making him lose the cash (perhaps by being given the wrong answer by Latika) but giving him Latika, and showing him ultimately happy (because Latika mattered more than the money).

MYK:

Latika was about 400 times hotter than Mary. And about 4000 times less annoying.

Hira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

maybe why sdm wasn't an apologetic piece of shit like kkl is because a gora made the former? and an intelligent gora at that.
as for the hotness competition, iman was way hotter. if your tv was on mute.

Tazeen said...

Its not just Indian middle class that was irritated with slumdog, even bollywood royalty was gallactically pissed.

Amitabh Bachan took potshots at Danny Boyle
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/7829985.stm

and another desi lambasted Amitabh Bachan for that on Guardian

http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2009/jan/15/danny-boyle-shows

MYK said...

Dear Fiverupees readers,

Please note that 2 comments above have been deleted by certain fiverupees authors.

Are you tired of your views being shut out by an overly dictatorial blog administrator? Then come on down to whatastupidity.blogspot.com where we encourage all our readers to speak their minds without having to be wary of the wrath of dogmatic authors.

Thats:
http://whatastupidity.blogspot.com/

So come one down to whatastupidity, where censorship is as taboo as anal sex.

JJY said...

I disagree with Anon above, in that I was ashamed of Mumbai being shown for what it truly is. I wanted my friends to see what it's really like, behind all the friedman-bullshit.

That being said, I came out of the movie uplifted. Perhaps it's because I read "A Fine Balance" 10 years ago, which paints a MUCH, MUCH, MUCH bleaker picture of urban (and rural) India, and goes into horrific detail about the beggar business, so none of that was news to me. Moreover, I've visited the slums numerous times, so I think I've internalized a lot of what was shown on screen, and perhaps even become a little numb to it. So to see someone, sort of ridiculously of course, get everything that his heart desired, in spite of the odds stacked against him, etc, while a little fairy-taleish, was still great.

Quick note - DO NOT read the book. It is beyond awful. Just an all around waste of time, money, effort, etc

Anonymous said...

JJY

Most probably, you have never encountered questions in class or while working with team members on a project belonging to U.S and developed countries such as are you here to improve your economy? or Is English your first language? or constantly testing your knowledge ,not getting your due in peer evaluations, subtle comments like belonging to "third world" or stereotyping Indian women as studying only arts and literature. When students go on a trip to India, they are specifically given instructions to drink only bottle water or not to trust the cab driver as he may rob you or always equating Mexico and India at par. They always associate India with extreme poverty and corruption.They never accept that there is other part of India which is booming.

I am sorry,I am not courageous enough like you to introduce the dark parts of my country to my friends and peers.Unlike you,I don't believe in washing dirty linen in public.I will definitely introduce them to Mumbai when India is put on par with china or south korea.

Anonymous said...

Tazeen-

Bollywood is pissed because S.D has changed the perception of India from booming Mumbai to a city of corruption, and extreme poverty. Now, western audience will always associate India with that image. Mr. Bachchan's comments prove the fact that many desis are still living in denial about the way real India is. Moreover, he knows that minus the Boyle direction, S.D would never have garnered this kind of prestige and popularity. Though, Danny has added Bollywood song and dance sequence ‘jai ho’, It was surprising to see that western audience didn’t mind the pelvic gyrations. Before S.D., Hollywood has never acknowledged the existence of Indian cinema with the exception of ‘Lagaan’. Lets face it, none of the top Indian filmmakers who pretend to tell the real story can aspire to get anywhere close to S.D.

H2O said...

Though i havent watched SM (and KKL too) yet, i am, for once, happy that this film made some Indian uncomfortable. I am not sure ab't average "pukka" indian living in india will feel pain while watching this, and there lies the success/failure of Boyle. Igniting debate among NRIs is far too easy for a filmmaker than doing same among people living here. The whole "art film movement" started in late 70s was nothing but a big failure on social POV. Those young aspiring filmmakers dreamt of changing society or bringing some kinda revolution through cinema, have drained into oblivion or succumbed to commercialism. This very fact might have prompted Boyle to show things in typical song-and-dance or rags-to-riches style. So my finger is crossed since SM has not been released in India yet.

H2O said...

Now ab't Amitabh Bachhan taking potshot at Boyle ..... hmm ... there is nothing he can do except this. His position in Hindi film Industry is unique. He neither belongs to shameless clan of Khans/kumars/johars/chopras nor does he see himself in the league of Benegals/Nihlanis/Naseers/Om Puris. He wears intellectual jacket of Benegal at the same time try to compete with SRK. This style has suited him for projecting himself as BIG B. But he forgot that majoritism (its always easy to put 1B people behind u) never be an indicator for any form of art (if he still considers cinema as art). This might be one reason for his ranting. Besides, there is always an "image factor" for Indians to judge anything, specially when things are "shinning".

JJY said...

Anon 8.10,

I hope you realise that there is a part of Mexico that is booming as well. You basically just did exactly what you were complaining about.

And I have encountered questions about class and the inevitable observation, "but you speak English so well!"

However, I don't think that means we should present India as being entirely represented by the limited, urban success story. How does that solve anything?

Ahsan said...

Re: the discussion b/w the two Indians above: without getting mired into the larger debate, I would just like to point out that on a per capita basis, Mexico is about 6 times richer than India.

Slumkutha Trillionaire said...

India is shining. It's from the yellow glow on the streets of its slums, thanks to public urination.

OA said...

I felt like slapping anil kapoor every time he said millionaire ... "welcome back to who wants to be a MILLAWN-aire".

apart from that, a great film.

JJY said...

Thanks chuthie - i didnt feel like looking it up.

SJV said...

Does that mean that we should believe everything that is printed/shown by Media- namely Pakistan is the most dangerous country in the world?
:P

Sorry but just couldn't resist that...
but seriously there are two Indias in India and anyone who doesnt agree with that needs to just look out of their window (especially if u live in Mumbai like I do)..So till recently it was the mumbai highrises and shiny new buildings that were getting all the attention, now its the turn of the other mumbai...
Arvind Adiga and now Slumdog Crorepati (yeah desi to the hilt) in the last six months..besides which we always have arundhati roy and ilk!!

:)

btw great blog

ps: do the alphabets have to stand for something or can they be any 3 random alphabets??

Ahsan said...

SJV:

I have no idea why our readers choose the pseudonyms they do, except in the case of MYK who happens to be a Younis Khan-phile.

shariq said...

SDM is the most over-praised film since Little Miss Sunshine. Sure it was entertaining, but the social commentary was incidental and not very deep, rather than driving the film. It was basically a Bollywood movie.

Some criticisms

1) Why did it have to feature the Taj Mahal?

2) How did the boys suddenly start speaking fluent English?

3) Accents - I have a really big issue with this. We can all mock Iman Ali, but Dev Patel's Indian accent was also an educated rather than slum one.

Maybe this film was ruined for me because I knew that Jack Hobbs had the record for most centuries and not Ricky Ponting :p

On balance, I liked KKL more despite the gap in production values.

Ahsan said...

Shariq:

I knew the Jack Hobbs bit too. Unfortunately, when I whispered this info to the W, I might have been loud enough for 3-4 people around us to hear. Oh well.

karachi khatmal said...

ok first of all, the criticism of KKL is well taken. However, everyone has managed to relegate the film to the debris of waste of time/money/space which i feel is grotesquely unfair.

the movie looked really pretty for the most parts (for that terrible war scene we also had iman ali on that pulley-trolley across the river, and that beautiful part inside the masjid was gorgeous as well.)

the score for KKL was GORGEOUS, and i think its a shame none of you mentioned that even.

most importantly, "Khuda Ke Liye" is a MUCH more courageous movie, because it came out in a much more inhibited society, that is in far greater denial than India is. On top of that, KKL couldn't ever hope to make money even if it was gold, something Indian cinema doesn't have to worry so much about. and even if the nasiruddin shah speech was tacky for some, it was an argument i had never heard before, and it was really refreshing to hear it.

Yeah, it was no classic, but i think KKL is like Inzamam-ul-Haq. You can poke fun of his ridiculous ways of getting out, his atrocious post-match dialogues, Aaloo-gate, the supreme laziness he embodied. But come on, Inzy was all heart. And you can't rag on that.

as for the other movie, someone mentioned "a fine balance" here which is quite relevant. thats because before slum dog came along, India had been depicted in far grittier reality before as well. Remember 'Shantaram'?

apart from the literary scene, movies have gone down this route too. has NO ONE here seen "Salaam Bombay?" Although Slumdog's premise was brilliant, Salaam Bombay was even a notch above once you account for the sudden switch to English (enforced by FOX Searchlight) and the singular facial expression of Dev Patel.

but seriously, KKL is like Inzy's innings against Bangladesh in Multan. For an outsider, it was an embarrassment that we were in that position in the first place. but for a pakistani, it was one of the all time greats, because it was pure heart.

Sikander Hayat said...

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