The latest film by Danny Boyle has already been showered with plaudits and, whilst I found it very enjoyable rather than outstanding, I can kind of see where the awards are coming from. The essence of the story (based on a novel by Vikas Swarup) is right there in the title of Slumdog Millionaire — Jamal Malik, a boy from the slums of Mumbai, grows up to become chai-wallah at a call centre, and wins the jackpot of 10 million rupees on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But the question (as posed by the movie’s initial caption) is, how did he manage it?
Which is a question the police are also very interested in, as we discover in the brilliant opening sequence, which intercuts stark footage of Jamal being interrogated (including having his head thrust in a bucket of water, and later having live electrodes attached to his toes) with clips of him on the game show. The contrast between the two is shown vividly, with the WWTBAM? segments seeming an impossibly distant dream, and the interrogation a grotesque nightmare from which waking up is not an option. It’s a great start to the film.
The reason the police are questioning Jamal is that they’re convinced he must have cheated at the quiz, because how could a ‘slumdog’ know all those answers? Well, luckily for Jamal, the questions asked things that he’s picked up during his eventful life — or perhaps not so luckily to an extent, because some of those memories are very painful. Jamal goes through each question in turn, recounting the relevant parts of his life to the police, and we see the events in flashback.
Orphaned as children when their mother is beaten to death in a riot, Jamal and his brother Salim are taken under the wing of Maman, who first appears to be a benevolent man running an orphanage, but proves to be a gangster who uses children as beggars, and blinds for real those who sing well, so they’ll bring in more money. Maman plans to do just that to Jamal, but the boy escapes, along with Salim and a girl named Latika; the brothers make it on to a train, but Latika is recaptured by Maman’s goons.
As they grow, the two brothers have to live off their wits, but Salim grows violent, and their ways eventually part, with Jamal becoming the chai-wallah, and his brother a gangster’s hitman. And Latika moves in and out of Jamal’s life, but remains always in the back of his mind, ultimately leading him to go on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
The teenage Jamal is played by Dev Patel, a British actor who has trouble disguising his accent (or chooses not to do so) and seems to spend most of his screen-time looking nonplussed, but does a good job with his part all the same. However, much of the film is carried by the young actors playing Jamal, Salim and Latika as children, and they carry it very well. Amongst the remaining cast, I would also single out Anil Kapoor, who gives a great performance as the game show’s vile host.
But Slumdog Millionaire‘s greatest strength — and, perhaps, its greatest weakness — is the way it’s put together. This is an expertly constructed movie: there’s further superb use of intercutting to move between the TV show/interrogation and the flashbacks; to mark other transitions (in one particularly memorable moment, Jamal and Salim are thrown off the train on which they fled Maman, they tumble down a banking, and when the resulting dust cloud clears, the brothers are a few years older and standing before a building they assume must be some sort of hotel — it’s the Taj Mahal); and to counterpoint the harshness of Jamal’s life and the pristine world of the game show. Unusual shots and oblique camera angles also help to give the film a dynamic, edgy feel.
The trouble is, though, that these techniques also draw attention to the artifice involved, which the movie can’t necessarily afford when its plot is already based so transparently on contrivance. I found that it conflicted with the very real emotional elements of the film, and made it that bit harder for me to care about everything.
The adverts for Slumdog Millionaire are quoting a review that describes it as ‘the feel-good film of the decade’, which not only overstates the case but also, I think, does Boyle a disservice. This is actually quite a dark, sombre film: violence and death are never far away at any stage. But there is also a good deal of humour peppered throughout; and Boyle plays fair with his story: ‘Why do people watch this?’ asks Jamal at one point, as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? plays on a television screen. Latika replies that it’s because the programme offers a dream of escape. And when escape finally comes, so does the big dance number, in the end credits.