Slumdogs shame our dogs
NOTHING has been so consistently disappointing culturally for Australia as our film industry. After a brilliant rebirth in the 1970s, it has become steadily worse. Our individual performers conquer all in Hollywood and London, and even Bollywood, but Australian films are consistently and predictably bad.
Compare and contrast, as the essay topicsetter would put it, two recent films: the bigbudget fiasco Australia , and the exquisite Slumdog Millionaire .
Australia cost at least $ 130 million, perhaps all up quite a lot more than that. It is one of the worst films I have seen for years. And it has been a commercial mediocrity and critical flop. It is not so much a failed epic as a ludicrous, camp pantomime. It features superb actors: Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and the gifted and charming young Aboriginal star, Brandon Walters. But they cannot save it from its ridiculous plot confusion, its constant air of contrived unreality, its pretentious and worthless nods to other films and the fact that at no point does the viewer believe in or care about the characters or the situations.
It grossly defames our nation. The treatment of Aborigines is the most morally troubling aspect of our history and we are rightly exercised about it. But no Australian government ever sent Aboriginal children to a mission island near Darwin so that the Japanese would bomb them. Nor did the Japanese land on and take control of such an island in the 1942 bombing of Darwin.
Some critics have excused this by saying that Australia partakes of no reality and therefore this anachronism, along with all the others, doesn’t matter. Australia claims to be dealing with a huge historical issue, the forced removal of mixed race Aboriginal children. It can’t expect people to take it seriously if it then depicts events that not only didn’t occur, but could not possibly have occurred in the universe we happen to inhabit.
The script is a dog’s breakfast. At one point the rough Aussie drover ( Jackman) is driving the refined English aristocrat ( Kidman) to her new home. Jackman says he’s always wanted to crossbreed a wild brumby with an English thoroughbred. Kidman thinks he’s propositioning her and reacts with shock.
This banal, pathetic attempt at a joke is important because it illustrates the script’s disdain for the audience. Kidman’s character is meant to be obsessed with horses in England, and with breeding her champions. It is inconceivable that she could have misunderstood Jackman’s remark, so the misunderstanding, which is meant to be comic, has no plausibility. In other words, the actors are not delivering the dialogue of a joke, they are delivering the dialogue of a parody of a joke. The audience is being asked to laugh not at a comic situation but at a director’s sly and knowing wink about the banality of comic situations in films. In which case, why make films at all?
Australia exhibits two of the worst characteristics of Australian filmmaking: excessive artiness, which prevents effective story telling and a didactic, dogmatic, unsubtle, hectoring tone of political preaching. It is a tragic waste of a unique opportunity in Australian filmmaking.
Slumdog Millionaire is the reverse of all that. Made in Mumbai by an English director with an Indian cast, it is really an Indian film. It cost little in film terms: $ US22 million ($ 33.6 million). It has won awards everywhere, vast critical acclaim and huge commercial success.
In Slumdog Millionaire , you are on the edge of your seat the whole time. The story is melodramatic. It’s really a kind of Indian Oliver Twist . The treatment is realistic, high energy but always plausible. As a result you fall absolutely in love with the kids. As is the case with many of Dickens’s books, in Slumdog Millionaire the treatment of the hero when he becomes an adult is slightly less sure, and certainly less affecting, than when he is a child.
It does strike me there is a remarkable degree of overlap between the world of Victorian English letters and contemporary Indian culture. Indians are the only people left on the planet who still have that Victorian sense of the full range of possibilities of the English language. The jokes in Slumdog Millionaire are marvellous. The hero, who sells tea in an Indian call centre, at one point has to cover for a call centre operator who wants to duck out for a second. He finds himself on the line to a customer from Scotland. The short, high-paced, brilliant, hilarious conversation that follows is a riot, wholly believable and wholly funny. Slumdog Millionaire is not trying to make a knowing joke about movie jokes, presumably directed at movie insiders, it is just making a joke.
It is merely the latest in a long line of memorable Indian films made in the past 10 years or so: Monsoon Wedding , Salaam Bombay , The Namesake , Chak De! India and a lot of others. Each is distinctively Indian without making a childish fuss about being Indian. Often, as with The Namesake and Slumdog Millionaire , they are derived from high-quality novels.
The continuing love of the novel, especially the novel of long, bold, strong, complex sentences, is another of the ways Indian culture resembles Victorian letters.
Slumdog Millionaire sent me off to read Oliver Twist and I rediscovered just what a rattling good storyteller was Dickens. He was rhetorical, at times sentimental, but the driving momentum of the story means you always desperately want to know what happens next.
Dickens’s novels, as well as being literature of the highest order, were popular entertainment. They had great social and political impact because millions of people cared about his characters and were shocked by the conditions he revealed. Reading them, you are struck by how much the Victorians were a people of words. Consider this typical sentence of dialogue taken at random from Oliver Twist :
‘‘ I confess to you that I had doubts at first whether you were to be implicitly relied upon, but now I firmly believe you are.’’
What a perfect sentence. Some folks believe Australian poets achieve much more than our novelists because the poet mediates nature directly to the reader, whereas the novelist needs a complex society to work with.
But that doesn’t explain why our films are so poor today. It may be that the culture of government grants that dominates our arts has deprived them of the drive to connect with an audience. On the other hand, maybe we’re just better at cricket. Come to think of it, the Indians are beating us there, too.
rearview@ theaustralian. com. au