International Oscar Showdown 2009 — Slumdog Millionaire vs Departures

The 81st Academy Awards winners for Best Picture and Best International Feature Film were Slumdog Millionaire and Departures

Bong Joon Ho’s movie Parasite made history at the 2020 Academy Awards, becoming the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture.

In this series, in reverse chronological order, I compare previous years’ Best Picture and Best International Feature to see how many other foreign-language films ought to have been given the top gong.

**** This article contains spoilers! ****

Since the Academy launched the Best Foreign Language Film award in the 1950s, India has been submitting movies for consideration, but, despite boasting one of the largest film industry’s in the world, they’ve only had three movies make it to the nominees list — and no winners.

If only they could count Slumdog Millionaire, which — besides its British director, producer and lead — was chock full of Indian talent and influence, not least the source material: the book Q & A by Indian author Vikas Swarup.

Movie poster for Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire

Filmed almost entirely in Mumbai with dozens of locally cast actors – and shot with palpable love for the country – the movie swept the awards to become the joint-eighth most successful movie at the Oscars ever.

It’s easy to see why it was so beloved. Director Danny Boyle fills every scene with so much verve and energy, it’s hard to escape its spirited clutches. And its dramatic range stretches from star-crossed lovers and gameshow tension to police torture and child mutilation.

It’s a rollercoaster, and no mistake.

Part romance melodrama, part crime thriller, part social injustice commentary, Slumdog follows the lives of Jamal and his brother Salim as they develop from Mumbai slum kids, to Taj Mahal tour cheats, and finally part ways in their teens to follow wildly different paths. The one constant is Jamal’s love for Latika, a girl they meet in their childhood after a traumatic Islamophobic attack on their neighbourhood.

Destiny’s child

The film’s witty structure is based around the Indian franchise of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, and explores how a “chaiwala” from the Mumbai slums could ever reach the final big-money question. Jamal is not an educated boy, you see; it turns out he just happened to live a life that perfectly prepares him for the questions on that one particular gameshow. Conveniently, those questions correspond to events in Jamal’s life in chronological order — it must be destiny!

Yes, the premise is a bit silly — and the fatalist romantic message wouldn’t seem out of place in a Mills & Boon novel — but it’s handled with such enthusiasm that you cannot help but run with it, just to see where they take you. Besides, every new question on the show heralds another greatly anticipated flashback with the beguilingly charismatic kids.

Much like later winner Moonlight, Slumdog is a three-act film with different actors playing the characters at different stages of their lives — as children, pre-teens and teenagers. It’s no secret that the kids were cast locally; in the case of Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail — who play the youngest Latika and Salim — they literally lived in the slums in which they were shooting.

New kids on the block

The cliché goes: never work with children or animals. But it is to Boyle’s credit that he disregards such reductive advice, for, with the help of co-director Loveleen Tandan, he coaxes astonishing performances out of the children. Indeed, these unexpected star turns are almost a detriment to the rest of the film; the kids go first, so the film begins on a high and ends less so.

Dev Patel plays Jamal as an adult, and, while a fine actor, he delivers lines somewhat incongruously with Jamal’s uneducated past. He’s a little too British — a little too well spoken — to be completely believable. They might have done well to cast an Indian actor, but, according to Boyle, most of the young men trying to make it in Bollywood were muscle-bound beefcakes; too handsome, too confident, and not nearly vulnerable enough to give the part the pathos it required.

Apart from the (comparatively) underwhelming latter third of the film, my only other criticism is the lack of a strong female character. Latika is perpetually owned by men — whether it’s as the Fagin-style beggar king’s prize virgin girl, or as the latter-day gangster’s moll — she only seeks to escape when told to do so by Jamal. She provides the agency for the male characters, but beyond that there’s very little to her.

It’s still a barnstorming film, with a script that keeps the pace ramped up throughout. The cinematography is vivid and dynamic — especially during the first act in the slums — though it is a little over-reliant on post-production colour grading to make its opening scenes contrast so strikingly in teal and orange.

I also particularly enjoyed the soundtrack — a notable favourite being MIA’s Paper Planes being played over the train-riding montage of Jamal and Salim hustling for rupees. Appropriate lyrics abound:

“Sometimes I think sittin’ on trains /
Every stop I get to I’m clocking that game /
Everyone’s a winner, we’re making our fame /
Bona fide hustler making my name /
… and I take your money”)

Finally, the film ends with the entire cast on the movie’s climactic train-station set for a Bollywood-style dance amid the credits. It’s unapologetically campy, but is indicative of the film’s unyielding vigour.

All aboard

Up against Slumdog in 2009 was Departures, the first submission from Japan to win Best Foreign-Language Film since it became a competitive award in 1956.

Japan’s relative dearth of nominated productions is astonishing, considering the country’s renowned filmmakers. From that pool of talent, two Japanese film icons have been given the Academy Honoray Award — Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki — perhaps in recompense for neglecting their work in the other categories for so long.

Movie poster for Departures
Movie poster for Departures
Yojiro Takita’s Departures

Departures, though, is a very different kind of film to Kurasawa’s period pieces or Miyazaki’s whimsical fantasies. Set in modern-day Japan, the film follows cellist Daigo (played by Masahrio Motoki) returning from Tokyo to his childhood home of Yamagata. Despite realising his dream of playing the cello in an orchestra, it soon disbands due to dwindling audiences, and Daigo is forced to sell his hugely expensive instrument or risk destitution. With free accommodation in the coffee shop that his deceased mother left him, a despondent Daigo brings his wife Mika back to the mountain town to find a new vocation.

Daigo responds to a vague ad for what he thinks is a job in tourism — it mentions “departures”, though he soon discovers the destination in question is rather more final. His employer, Mister Sasaki, is in the mortuary business, specifically performing the act of encoffination for funeral homes. It’s good money, and requires no experience, so Daigo accepts the job offer despite his unease with touching dead bodies.

The film’s introduction to encoffination is performed with methodical precision upon a young woman, as the parents look on with curiosity. The score features wistful violins, and each fold and crease that Daigo makes upon the clothing of the corpse is deliberate and, even, beautiful. It is not until Daigo is cleansing the body and happens upon an unexpected appendage around the girl’s crotch that we encounter the film’s preoccupation: embarrassment.

It is not played for laughs; Mister Sasaki calmly and quietly asks the girl’s uncle if the parents would prefer a man’s makeup or a woman’s makeup. Though the parents of the transwoman argue between themselves over whose fault it is their little boy became a girl, the scene ends with the father tearfully thanking Sasaki for revealing his daughter’s true visage.

Video nasties

Meanwhile, Daigo is too ashamed to reveal his new job to Mika, but she discovers the truth when she sees him in Mister Sasaki’s corporate video as a dummy corpse, having his anal cavity dutifully stuffed. When he tries to explain and reaches out to her, she flinches — she would sooner leave him than let him touch her with hands that have cleaned corpses.

The job draws much consternation from acquaintances and the public, too — it is considered unclean. One family, mourning a young girl killed in a motorcycle accident in which her boyfriend survived, poor scorn on the boyfriend by saying he couldn’t make up for the loss of the girl if he debased himself with Daigo’s job for the rest of his life.

Even so, Sasaki and Daigo are often showered with thanks and appreciation from the families of the deceased once they have performed the ceremony. And it is only in witnessing their work that Mika understands the dignity it bestows upon grieving families.

Divine comedy

Departures is ostensibly a comedy about death, but also a drama about shame. The two contrasting elements are perfectly balanced, with some cracking laughs sandwiched between moments of solemnity and grief. Take the aforementioned anal-stuffing — poor Daigo is a wincing corpse as Sasaki inserts the cotton bud in the corporate video, but that moment leads immediately to Mika rejecting her husband.

It’s also the only film with an uplifting montage of funerals I can think of.

The film’s denouement deals with Daigo’s absent father, who ran off with a waitress when Daigo was a boy and was never heard from again — until, that is, a message arrives with news of his death. Much like every other sub-plot in the film, it is overcome with a death and an encoffination — but there’s a sweet twist to it that neatly ties the film together.

Retrospective result

I liked both of these films immensely, but can only give the victory to one film: and that has to be Slumdog. Despite its hackneyed fatalist melodrama and rather reductive representation of women, it is a constant thrill, visually arresting, and emotionally fraught. The music’s great, the performances are impassioned, and the story is riveting (if ultimately shallow).

Departures, on the other hand, is a sweet film with much more to say, and I appreciated its refreshing tonal contrast between amusement and solemnity. However, it relies a little too heavily on convenient deaths for its plot points, and is slightly underwhelming in its finale.

And with that, Hollywood retains the lead after falling momentarily behind, to bring the Showdown series to 6–5. Find out next time if the international film community can level the score when Coen Brothers thriller No Country For Old Men goes up against Austrian WW2 drama The Counterfeiters.

Writer of stories, movie reviews, and sundry other whims. Also a sub-editor, so you are welcome to shout at me about typos.