Posts Tagged ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

The Oscars draw ever closer, but one film-maker of note who’s not in the running for anything this year is Danny Boyle, presumably because recently he’s been too busy doing Frankenstein on stage and preparing his contribution to the Olympics – an opening show entitled I Love Wonder (or something like that). To be perfectly honest I am supremely indifferent to the Olympics and would much rather Boyle cracked on with 28 Months Later, but there you go.

That said, the very fact I am looking forward to a Boyle movie at all is somewhat notable as I was fairly late coming to the party as far as this man is concerned. I remember the first time I saw Shallow Grave on video, lying on a mattress at 2am next to a demented wannabe director whose film I was nebulously attached to as co-scripter (we were both somewhat, ahem, medicated). I thought it was a solid movie but nothing special, and neither Trainspotting nor The Beach came close to the quality of their source novels.

That said, I did think 28 Days Later was a hugely impressive movie (possibly because it’s an uncredited adaptation of one of my favourite books), Sunshine was interestingly different and 127 Hours genuinely moving. My issue with a lot of Boyle’s work is with his habit of relentlessly overloading the screen with all kinds of conceits and narrative devices that the story neither needs nor can really support, to the ultimate detriment of the film. 127 Hours needed exactly this kind of treatment to work at all, which is why it felt like such a good match for Boyle.

Of course, the film which really brought Boyle international acclaim came out a couple of years earlier. I missed the initial release of Slumdog Millionaire due to being in Kyrgyzstan at the time, but I’ve caught up with it since and can fully understand just why this film did so well.

Dev Patel plays Jamal, a young chai-wallah (basically the tea boy) in a Mumbai call centre. But Jamal has a date with destiny when he goes on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (a TV game show made by the same company that produced this film – hmmm). Sixteen questions stand between Jamal and unimaginable wealth, but no-one expects an uneducated nobody like him to stand a chance. However, Jamal’s extraordinary life has left him uniquely well-prepared for this experience…

This being a Danny Boyle film, of course, just one framing device isn’t enough, and so wrapping around the gameshow idea are scenes in which Jamal is questioned (tortured, really) by the police, who suspect he was cheating on the show. From here we see the show and from the show we flash back through Jamal’s life, which is the meat of the movie. Growing up a rather unworldly child, alongside his more savvy brother Salim, he is orphaned in a sectarian riot, in the aftermath of which the brothers meet Latika, another child without a family.

As they grow to adulthood the trio are separated and reunited various times and in various combinations, but some things remain constant – Salim’s ruthlessness, and the emotional bond between Jamal and Latika. Can any of them hope to find a happy ending?

Well, I’m routinely very scathing about the Academy’s priorities when it comes to handing out the Oscars but fair play to them in this case – this is a very cleverly constructed and utterly engrossing film, full of life and colour and energy. The game show conceit is never quite as intrusive as you might expect it to be and the film isn’t afraid to turn on a sixpence in terms of its tone – a shocking and tense sequence about gangsters mutilating orphans to make them more productive beggars is followed quite closely by a genuinely funny set of scenes where the boys are working as tour guides around the Taj Mahal.

It really does sweep you up and carry you along, which is an even more impressive achievement given that it’s not afraid to address the darker side of life in the Mumbai slums. One of the themes of the film is the corruption that goes hand-in-hand with worldly success, something reflected in the way Mumbai itself is transformed over the years in which the film takes place. Only Jamal seems to be immune to this, and this of course is due to his love for Latika. Is it a bit sentimental? Well, yes, and for me there are a couple of mis-steps near the end, but by this point the film had generated more than enough goodwill for this not to be a problem.

Then again, with a film like this (or indeed City of God, which it sometimes resembles), there’s always the issue of rich foreigners turning up to a developing country and using genuine human poverty as the basis for them to make money for themselves – cinema as poverty tourism, in other words. On the other hand, some Indian commenters have criticised it on the grounds that it presents their country in too negative a light.

I don’t know; this is such a complex issue. Watching the film, it never quite seemed to be indulging itself in the kind of dubious exoticism that one might expect. Having been lucky enough to live and work in several different Asian countries myself, I don’t have much time for people who treat these places as giant-sized theme parks – and I never got the sense that this was the film-makers’ intention, even if it may have been some of the audience’s. And if we’re really going to be serious about the superficial exploitation of poverty and other cultures, doesn’t that limit us to either watching films about people exactly like us, or unsatisfying confections of total fantasy?

I am quite happy to give Slumdog Millionaire the benefit of the doubt, simply on the grounds of its style and wit and heart. There aren’t many films of recent years that I’ve seen on DVD and really regretted not seeing on the big screen: this, however, is definitely one of them.

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