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