Slumdog Millionaire

slumdogpic
Manic energy, above all, powers Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, a deliriously Dickensian romance set in modern Mumbai, written by Simon Beaufoy. Jamal Malik’s (Dev Patel) a teenager from the slums who becomes an unlikely contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?. He does so well on the show that on the eve of his run for the million-dollar question, he’s hauled in by the police on suspicion of cheating. How could a lowly slumdog, after all, know the answers to every question on the game show? The host — played by Bollywood star Anil Kapoor with hammy swagger — is rightly flummoxed and so is the police detective (Irfan Khan, who essentially reprises his solid turn from Michael Winterbottom’s first-rate kidnapping drama A Mighty Heart).

Slumdog Millionaire is structured as an inquiry, told largely through Jamal’s flashbacks, into how he knew the game-show answers and, more importantly, why he knew them: the boy’s in love, and every answer he knows is a consequence, one way or another, of his friendship with the gorgeous Latika (Freida Pinto). His appearing on the show is his bid to attract Latika’s attentions, and finally to win her over. It’s a tough road, though, because Latika, whose life has been no less difficult than Jamal’s, is now ensconced in the plush world of a well-known Mumbai don.

Jaman and Latika grew up together amid’s Mumbai’s squallor. Then, after the Hindu-Muslim riots of the early 90’s, their lives spiralled into an abyss of misfortune that would make Oliver Twist shudder. Their worlds eventually separate into parallel but perilous lives. Along with his cunning companion Salim (Madhur Mittal), Jamal falls in with a troupe of professional child-beggers overseen by a scurrilous, Fagin-esque leader. They escape and manage to make a living through petty theft and fleecing tourists. All the while, though, Jamal dreams of Latika. They do reunite, but the occasion is brief, laced with heartbreak and, worse, betrayal at the hands of Salim.

Who Wants To Be a Millionaire is Jamal’s Hail-Mary effort not only to put his own poverty and criminality behind him, but Latika’s too. It’s his ultimate act of love and rebellion. Love is the great motivator all through Slumdog — Jamal’s love for Latika informs every scene, every sacrifice and act of courage — but what Boyle and Beaufoy forget to supply as they fashioned their picaresque is any tangible chemistry between their lovers: There is none. Jamal’s is but a schoolboy crush taken to extremes, and Latika’s interest in him feels incidental. If it weren’t for her misery and peril, living essentially as an indentured sex slave to a mafia don, there would no reason for her to seek out Jamal, her sole savior.

In the course of their tale, we’re never convinced that these two are soulmates; they’re brought together more by the exigencies of plot than anything else. In his review of the film in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane hit the problem on the head (and, in the process, described Boyle’s cinema as a whole) when he said his “characters lunge at experience, although the films themselves hardly dare to ask how much, or how little, that experience has been worth.” Slumdog Millionaire, in other words, in an exercise in expert style and mechanics, but little soul or feeling. Those are deep, evasive things for a storyteller to get his hands around. But without them, there is no story, only kinetic imagery.

The other major flaw is that of extreme contrivance. It’s not that lowly Jamal, against immense odds, finds himself a guest on a nationwide hit game-show, but the tenuous — even ridiculous — circumstances under which he learned the answers. This critic greatly doubts that a blind Indian beggerboy, no matter how intelligent, would know that Benjamin Franklin is on the U.S. hundred dollar bill — knowledge that Jamal uses to answer one of his questions. In another instance, Jamal tracks down Salim by quickly running his name through a call-center database. And that’s only a smidgeon of the far-fetched nature of Slumdog’s narrative conceits. I would have no trouble swallowing any of it if Boyle and Beaufoy had delivered on their love story. If Jamal and Latika’s aching need to be with each other had been convincingly presented, it would’ve smoothed over every bump and hole in their plotting.

But Boyle is less interested in human chemistry and more in technical chemistry. He’s a terrific filmmaker (Trainspotting and 28 Days Later bear that out), but he’s taken on something here that he can’t quite live up to: Capturing the soul of a complex Indian metropolis, while telling a deeply human story. But to Boyle, Mumbai is just a playground of poverty, filth, and deprivation. There is nothing distinctly Mumbai here, everything seems filtered through stereotypes, even Latika’s mafia don sugar-daddy, who’s just a raffish, foul-mouthed cad seems lifted from any bad Bollywood melodrama. Boyle’s Mumbai could just as well be Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro or Lagos. A sea of miserable faces, churning and scurrying, ekeing out a meager living. And it bothered me that, yet again, a Western filmmaker has brought his camera to exploit Indian poverty (Louis Malle’s horrid Calcutta was an early offender and Susanne Bier’s After the Wedding a more recent one), without capturing the spirit of its people and culture. Slumdog is merely India as Westernized thrill ride.

Not that a galvanized portrait of India is a bad thing. Watch Ram Gopal Varma’s Company for a jolt of Mumbai criminality from a filmmaker who knows it first hand. What Slumdog needed was a Mumbai filmmaker like Varma — an Indian equivalent of Mexico’s Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) or Brazil’s Fernando Meirelles (City of God) — to tell this story. At least then we would’ve had an indigenous voice, melding style and detail in nuanced, authentic ways, letting Mumbai truly come alive on screen. It’s about time we come up with a name for how India — or maybe all Third World cultures — are exploited by Western filmmakers. Thirdploitation, anyone? I think it’s got a nice ring to it.

Still, there’s plenty in Slumdog to be charmed by. Freida Pinto as the object of Jamal’s love is a sight for sore eyes; she’s definitely the world-cinema beauty of 2008. And Boyle’s style, for all its flaws, is compulsively watchable, propelled by a joyous, hip-hop-meets-bangra score by A.R. Rahman, whose work here above anyone else’s is world class. Rahman’s score is the Slumdog’s true winner, what I’ll keep coming back to long after Boyle’s circus-tent of a movie packs up and fades from my memory.
Grade: B-

Directed: Danny Boyle
Written by: Simon Beaufoy
Cast: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto, Irfan Khan, Mahesh Manjreker, Uday Chopra, Sharib Hashmi
Rated: R
Runtime: 120 min.

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24 comments

  1. What is the colour of grass in your world, black or white?

    I hope I never have to go to a movie with someone with as little imagination as you or imagination for what the director takes in license.

    Go see this movie, it’s A++

  2. just saw the movie yesterday. He is right on. I wish I had learned a little more about India or felt like I had become a little more exposed to it. Despite the theme and location of this movie, I feel like India was simply a faceless backdrop. Its unfamiliarity is good enough to garner complimentary reviews due to the film/culture’s mystique. However, nothing culturally relevant is ever expanded upon or magnified. Certainly good for marketing and popularity…

    The love between the two children was charming, but never truly qualified. It was fleeting and perhaps there was a connection as friends, but ever lasting love? As the author says, maybe only because the girl was a slave to slumlords.
    Still, great movie and I’ll watch it again.

  3. Your analysis is spot on – while the movie is pretty good, it did have some flaws as you mentioned ….. even though I was satisfied after having watched the movie, I thought it missed something, now I KNOW what was missing…… thanks for a great review.

  4. The most rudimentary research (or even staying behind a little bit for the somewhat cringe inducing final credits) would have shown you that there was an indigenous voice involved in the production of the film (besides, yknow, the indigenous members of the cast and crew), the Delhi based Loveleen Tandan who is given the somewhat interesting Co-Director (India) credit. That alone suggested to me a degree of authenticity was sought after that most western directors simply would not bother with.

    I haven’t been to Mumbai, as you probably have. You might even be based there for all I know. Or you might not. You may have spent less time there than Boyle has for all I know. Your inference though is that the portrayal of Mumbai is ‘wrong’ or, perhaps to put it a better way, ‘misleading’. Certainly I think it’s a bit much to suggest that there is a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ way to portray one of the most dynamic cities in the world. I think the portrayal of the city is appropriate relative to the source material/subject matter, at the very least. It was, though, the criticism of a lack of indigenous perspective when one was obviously present that was especially grating, for me. The implied allegation of exploitation on Boyle’s part was also, I feel, a wholly unfair criticism, depending on the particular definition of the word exploit that we’re using. It also seems like a rather irrational criticism given that the novel that inspired the film is also set in India. Would the movie have been any better if it was adapted to take place in London? I doubt it.

    But by criticising for a lack of cultural authenticity on the part of a western director the review just comes across as an exercise in vanity by showing your own cultural awareness and a needless attempt to differentiate your work and observations from other run of the mill reviewers. It’s a criticism that seems just a bit unwarranted. Certainly the portrayal of Mumbai has nothing of the touristy vibe of, say, the locations of every James Bond film ever made, for example.

    Cheers.

  5. At one level I do see your point- stereotyping India as a land of poverty is easy and is probably done to garner a few er..tickets and a shot at the Oscars probably. However Bollywood directors also stereotype West as a moral lacking land where girls are easy (see any Bollywood movie where a western woman has a small two bit part) and most of youth are drug taking zombies and racists. It’s fair and square then.

    As for your argument that only natives have the right to make films about their country..well it falls flat as Shekhar Kapoor has made a brilliant Elizabeth and Attenborough did make a brilliant ‘Gandhi’ among many other examples.

    And yes, India despite its booming economy is still a developing country (with first world pretensions) where poverty is still deep rooted and West, despite it being rich, has many flaws including its own hypocrisy which has been shown in many movies.

  6. There is a good possibility that a blind boy who is in the business of begging, identifies dollar bills through the pictures.. Indian, UK etc have currencies of different sizes, a blind beggar in Mumbai would be able to identify the denomination of the notes through the size. Anerican bills are of the same size (now even the Courts have asked the Department of treasury to print blind friendly notes).

    We can conjecture that foreign nationals give $1 or $10 to beggars. Some of these boys are intelligent enough to fold the note and ask a kid to describe the picture…And they find out the denomination of the dollar bill. It sounds strange but it could be true. In Mumbai, around 10 years back I had my shoes polished by a blind shoeshine boy in one of the rail stations. Not only did he do a good job, but gave me and others the correct change.

    On a lucky day, the blind beggars may make a killing when someone gives a $100….

    Also, Boyle and co would have done a reailty check of each answer!

    thanks
    Sudhir

  7. Before seeing this film I have to admit I was on-edge about how exploitative and/or stereotypical it was going to be in its portrayal of India. Although there have been a handful of great films like Ghandi done by Western directors, most have been terribly inaccurate about the reality of life in India.

    That said, after seeing Boyle’s film I don’t know how anyone can think it exaggerated anything or exploited anyone. Remember – the film is based on a book written by an Indian author about an orphan street-kid. How else should he have shot it? What should he have left out?

    All of the scenes in the film were shot in actual slums (mostly in Juhu, with some wide shots from Dharavi) that I have worked in. He didn’t dress them up – that’s how they look, that’s the reality of life for nearly half of Mumbai’s population who live in slums, that’s what they deal with.

    The experiences that the kids go through are all fairly commonplace for street kids – they hustle to survive, they face exploitation by begging gangs, they are forced into prostitution, they face the threat of violence, and some (but by no means most) middle and upper class Indians treat them like crap.

    If the reality of life for folks who live in slums bothers you, or the reality of what street kids live with vexes you, maybe you should berate Boyle for making the film in the first place, because the execution of it was both excellent and accurate in my eyes.

    I have no doubt that the film will be received positively in India, not just because Kapoor & Khan are in it, but because it’s a good film, and it isn’t exploitative.

  8. From what I understand about this particular form of exploitation, it is not the accuracy with which Mumbai is presented the reviewer is commenting on (it is an honest, truthful portrayal, very accurate), but rather the fact that the state of Indian slums is amusing to American audiences – something they’d pay ten bucks to look at for two hours. Similar to the idea of going to Africa for a month to “make a difference” as an affluent American, only to leave and go back to the comforts of home feeling positive about “affecting lives” while Africans still remain in oppressive, underdeveloped nations for the rest of their lives. It’s about recognizing that in exchange for a moment of personal resonance and enjoyment, others survive terrible circumstances.

    As an audience we find this story beautiful and high-energy and funny and romantic (which it is), but what is being exploited is the actuality that these slums really are as shown in the film, and that is not something to be proud of or something good. So we have the pleasure of enjoying this cinematic treasure at the expense of the truth about life in the slums of India (orphans forced to live on garbage mounds, ordinary people murdered because of their religious beliefs), while offering nothing to change this fact or make it better, but simply watching it as it is for the sake of an authentic, truthful film that we CAN feel proud of, that we CAN take a break from our American lives and go see. Most people, after seeing this film, will rave about its beauty and its technical accomplishments (which, again, I do not disagree with) – but will any of them, after seeing this film, donate any money, time, effort, or thought to India to improve the quality of life as witnessed in Slumdog Millionaire? Probably not.

    That is not to say that every movie made about shitty real-life circumstances (racism, oppression, extreme poverty, etc) has a responsibility to see to it that what is being presented is also made better; but there is certainly something to be said about openly exposing gritty, unfortunate truths in a medium capable of reaching a widespread audience, and not directly encouraging awareness (i.e. documentaries that seek to educate, not just to entertain, and may even strive for non-profit). In that sense, it is almost impossible for a documentary to be exploitative because it is shot for the sake of revealing truth, usually as a means to ignite change and/or awareness, whereas fictional motion pictures normally just seek to entertain and/or evoke an emotional response, or recognition of technical mastery in the craft.

    Is Slumdog Millionaire a fantastic film? In my opinion, absolutely. It’s gorgeous. But I do agree that films like these, as great as they are, do exploit their backdrop nations for the sake of stunning imagery and a well-told story.

  9. One reason the chemistry is lacking is that Latika is not given opportunity to develop into a full character–in the end, we know her as nothing but a pawn of desirous men. While Jamal is meant to release her from this fate, his pursuit only mirrors her identity as a trophy. I find her instantaneous rapture in his arms, after knowing only sexual abuse from the hands of men, starkly implausible and frankly insulting.

  10. MKD,

    I agree that Latika is not given as much screen time as Jamal, therefore she does not develop into a full character.

    I am not sure about ‘the instantaneous rapture’ that you mention. The last thing that Jamal tells Latika before he leaves the gangster (Javed)’s home is that he will be waiting for her at VT station. Jamal is shown waiting for Latika on the staircase of VT, and she too comes looking for him. Just as they recognize each other, Salim and his goons abduct her. Then Jamal goes to Javed’s home and finds it locked. It is then he decides (as a last resort) to use the Millionaire game show route to locate her.

    I am not sure about ‘ implausible’ and ‘insulting’, and in my opinion her decision to run away from Javed a Millionaire to be with her childhood sweetheart who lives in poverty is a great quality. Latika had asked Javed how would they live – he said ‘on love’. And she picked love over money…

    Sudhir

  11. I loved the movie. But what everyone seems to miss is this is not love: It’s a crush of Jamal’s, and as for Latika, well we see where her priorities lie when she says to Jamal, how will we live? (at the mafia boss home) — basically the moral of the story is that Latika will only be with Jamal if he’s rich. Love? I don’t think so.

  12. So SM has a few plot holes such as a bit of contrivance here and there and some lack of authenticity but this is a story not a travelogue. Might as well criticise Trainspotting for not being realistic in its surreal moments or 28 Days for being unrealistic because zombies dont exist. SM is definitely a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. It’s got a novel storyline and actually manages to get the balance between grittiness and squalor on the one hand and optimism and levity on the other.

  13. I can’t really believe that Indian police are generally as brutal as they are portrayed as being in this movie.

    Nor can I believe that a game show host could have a contestant turned over to the police as easily as is done in this movie.

    Surely, these are exaggerations of reality, but I haven’t seen anyone comment on these aspects of the movie.

    Can anyone comment?

    1. Hey Martin, even though its a 2 year old comment – I feel obliged to reply because of your concern for human rights and injustice.

      I am an Indian and I will say that yes – the Indian police system is extremely corrupt and can be brutal. To a large extent this is true. But the torture sequence where he is electrocuted – I find that hard to believe. That would be such a blatant violation of human-rights.

      Cases of police brutality often come up – but whenever they do – they are as shocking (and heartbreaking) to us as they are to you. The ‘law and order’ system may be a little broken here – but we live in a free country – in a democracy.

      Also the scene where the host turns over the contestant to the police – well that too was a bit of ‘exaggeration of reality’. But there do exist this breed of ‘cold’ and petty bastards in India – who are capable of such things. (as an Indian I could definitely relate to having come across such type of people in my life).

      The reason being – these type of people (often having come from small places but risen to a certain degree of success) do not value or respect ‘poor’ people much and treat them like shit.

  14. The movie is at best watchable, once. Definitely not a ‘great’ movie. The great ones can be watched again and again, and years later. So please, lets not abuse ‘great’. Anyways, lets forget language play here.

    The movie has the right emotions and sometimes does keep you on the edge, just for the action on screen mind you; not any kind of suspense. As for portrayal of India, we can agree or disagree. I do not think this movie was intended to be a documentary, so why should I care as a viewer if it gave me my money’s worth. The art of movie making involves taking you into a fairy land and telling you a story. Problems start when the viewer takes everything personally. This is true with any movie, made anywhere in the world.

    By the way, someone talked about Gandhi (the movie). I do not think its a great movie. I do agree that it serves a great extent to educate Indians slightly on the great man (because in real life, and in books we seem to have forgotten him). But historically, it is still bad; there are just too many mistakes but I would not go into that now.

  15. Scenes of poverty and squalour may appear romantic to Westerners and to our snooty elite but for ordinary Indians they are nothing new. They are an everyday reality. However, one wonders what sort of mind can find such images aesthetically pleasing. Party-hopping socialites (for example, Shobhaa De after all her bombast of “enough is enough” after the Mumbai attack, went and watched a pirated copy!) who are distanced from such reality may find this film an “eye-opener” but for us it IS just poverty-porn. It IS just slum- voyeurism. The music/soundtrack and the technical quality is excellent but I think, overall, the film is unrealistic and over-rated because:
    1) The director seems to RELISH showing violence. Some of it (like the police-torture) is quite needless. And why was the boy arrested in the first place? On what charge? Was it realistic?
    2) How can a boy growing up in slums speak such accented English? Even if one assumes that the language he actually uses to communicate with the game-show host and the police officer is Hindi (granting the director the creative license to use a language better suited for international audiences), there are 2 instances where it is stretched too far: (a) when the boy becomes a ‘guide’ for foreign tourists at the Taj Mahal & (b) when he becomes a substitute-operator at the call-centre.
    3) When the boy uses his ‘lifeline’ during the game-show, his friend discovers that she has forgotten her mobile and has to run back for it. This is plain Bollywood masala! Did the director HAVE to make it so melodramatic?
    4) How did the boy know who invented the revolver just by watching his brother use it?
    How does his friend know about Benjamin Franklin?
    5) “Darshan Do Ghanshyam” is NOT written by Surdas. It is written by Gopal Singh Nepali for the movie Narsi Bhagat (1957). This song is also credited as traditional and originally written by 15th century poet Narsi Mehta, whose life that film is based on.
    6) After winning the game-show, the boy sits on the railway platform and nobody recognizes him! Considering the popularity of the show, is that realistic?
    7) Two glaring omissions: To get invited to the show one has to answer several GK questions over phone or Internet. Even after making it to the show, a contestant can reach the hot-seat, only after qualifying through “fastest finger first”. All this is conveniently forgotten in the film.
    8) And of course the greatest flaw in the storyline: programmes like ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ and ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ are NOT telecast live. As a result the entire structure of the film becomes unrealistic. For a film that boasts of being realistic such a flaw cannot be overlooked.
    Due to all these flaws, “Slumdog Millionaire” is no better or worse than an average Bollywood masala film and the Academy will lose its credibility if it gives this film the Best Picture & Best Director awards.

  16. I don’t agree with you about the exploiting of the culture, but I do agree about the chemistry of the two leads, I felt it wasn’t quite strong and it didn’t captivate me 100%. But, visually this film is stunning, and it does have a heart, and I enjoyed it a lot! A H Rahman’s song is genius.

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