PRAMOD G. NAIR
Given the criticism of “Slumdog Millionaire”, a look at Danny Boyle’s body of work shows his films to be stylistically, generically and ideologically compelling and diverse.
A notable feature of Boyle’s films is his command over the medium and appropriateness of style that is visually engaging
As the heated debate about “Slumdog Millionaire” tapers off, one sadly realises that the obsession of this repetitive din of our film-crazy nation has been largely about whether or not poverty was commodified on celluloid for money, fame and awards. Most arguments alluded to a white filmmaker peddling Indian poverty in the international market using an inferior version of the Bollywood idiom. They also seemed to suggest that if not for the poverty and grime that matched Western notions of India, the film would have been a dud. The excitement over Rahman and Resul Pookkutty was only the epilogue.
In the midst of this misplaced nationalism and denial of a hugely embarrassing reality of destitution, what we forgot to acknowledge was the brilliance of the man behind the movie — British filmmaker Danny Boyle whose work is stylistically, generically and ideologically compelling and diverse.
A contemporary director, whose repertoire ranges from a completely non-linear dogma type “Trainspotting” more than a decade ago to the spectacular science fiction “Sunshine” last year and the latest Bollywood style entertainer “Slumdog Millionaire”. While many saw only poverty and grime in “Slumdog…”, others saw an uplifting and empowering sense of hope capable of transforming our attitude to life while being crushed by adversities.
This, in fact, has been the underlying philosophy of most of his movies. His canvasses are wide, colours and strokes are different, but the experience is similar — exhilarating, thought-provoking, transformative and unconventional. Sometimes, uncomfortable too.
“Trainspotting” (1996), perhaps established Danny Boyle’s reputation as a filmmaker with immense intellectual and technical prowess. While his characters, immersed in the pursuit of pleasure and drugs, seemed initially successful in defying life and ridiculing its values; by the end, the humanist in Danny Boyle succeeded in affirming life. He stayed objective throughout the film, not making any judgment for or against drugs but let the characters indulging in excesses crumble before us.
“Millions” (2004) captured the universal innocence of a child and the futility of money. Was it a fable, a comic book, a thriller, a comedy or simply a child movie? It had many layers and many angles to the truth. But it was made us look inward and introspect about human character with a simple story of a bag full of pounds landing on a dreamy child in England only a few days before the currency became outdated. “Millions” also rejected the conventions of cinema and had some brilliant cuts and lighting.
In between was “The Beach” (2001) set in Thailand, a mixture of fantasy and reality centred on a Utopian community created by global tourists in a remote Thai island. The message was evidently the environmental and moral degradation caused by decadent Western tourists in countries like Thailand.
In a “Life Less Ordinary” (1997), he “created a comedy for anyone who is in the danger of falling in love.” The element of fantasy was excitingly enjoyable, as two angels prompt a cleaning man in LA and his hostage fall in love. Released immediately after “Trainspotting”, this romantic fantasy (or was it a crime thriller?) too was laced with social satire: the lead character (Ewan McGregor) abducts his boss’s daughter because he was replaced by a robot! “28 Days Later” (2002), in which a mysterious virus grips Londoners with savage behaviour, was a study of our primordial instincts.
Other than the diversity of issues and plots, a notable feature of Boyle’s films is his command over the medium of cinema and the appropriateness of style that is visually engaging. In “Trainspotting”, “Slumdog…” and “28 Days Later” he used the kinetic camera and extremely dynamic music; while in a “Life Less Ordinary”, the style lent itself to the fantasy of a love story and social satire. “Sunshine” was pretty straightforward science fiction with a lot of computer graphics, limited music and widescreen spectacles while in “Millions”, the wintry sunshine with a tint of yellow reflected innocence. “Alien Love Triangle” (2002) was a simple science fiction while “Shallow Grave” (1994), before he was catapulted to fame, was a comedy.
Boyle’s films are also notable for his sharp cuts, engaging visual tension, brilliant use of sound and music and a narrative that moves back and forth, something we saw best in filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Alexandro Gonzales Inarritu, and imitated by others all over the world including in our own backyard. His characters often become part of the style. There is a lot of drama, sarcasm, layers of sub-texts and some sensible use of computer graphics.
Question of context
If Danny Boyle is accused of using poverty as a prop in “Slumdog…”, one notices the use of socio-economic and cultural contexts as prop in all his films. In fact, this feature, often laced with sarcasm and exaggeration, drives home a point. If people found the young boy plunging through human excreta in “Slumdog…” an affront to India, in “Trainspotting” Ewan McGregor goes into the dirtiest toilet in Scotland looking for his heroin-substitute. It is about the absolute desperation that we face at certain junctures in life.
One recurrent feature in all Danny Boyle films is his uplifting affirmation of life. Whether it is a dying sun revived by a nuclear bomb the size of Manhattan Island delivered by a committed man willing to die for a public cause (“Sunshine”), or a Jamal who begins his journey from a pot of human excreta to the chair of a millionaire (“Slumdog…), the message is the same. Critical and commercial successes apart, Danny Boyle is a self-confessed purveyor of small films that are off the radar of the big mainstream world. “I don’t want to make pompous, serious films; I like films that have a kind of vivacity about them. At this time of the year, you think about awards and if you want to win one, you think you should make serious films, but my instinct is to make vivacious films,” he is reported to have said.
Shall we take a re-look at “Slumdog Millionaire” now?