Award-grabbing British/Indian film exuberantly entertaining
Slumdog Millionaire has been widely celebrated as a vivaciously entertaining rags-to-riches tale, and it has already copped a truckload of awards, including the Golden Globe for best drama, and 10 Oscar nominations. All that may come partly as a surprise—especially given that the picture in question recounts the rather brutal travails of a Mumbai slum kid who vaults into improbable wealth (and a bit of undeserved notoriety) via India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
But the new film from Danny Boyle (A Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, etc.) is indeed a thumpingly effective crowd-pleaser, and a stingingly offbeat saga as well. The “rags-to-riches” tag misses part of the overall point, however: Slumdog has energetic charm and a streak of romance that hurtles toward an ostensibly happy ending, but it’s also carrying a load of disturbing complications and assorted harsh ironies along the way.
Perhaps the most interesting of these complications is that there are two “slumdog millionaires” in the film—Jamal, the teenaged slum kid, is one, but the quiz show’s host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor, in the film’s most distinctive performance) emerges as another—in ways that prove crucial to a couple of major plot twists. And Jamal’s success story is shadowed throughout by the parallel career of his slightly older brother Salim, whose own hardscrabble industriousness and daring produce far less happy results.
The story’s mildly preposterous premises seem overly evident at the outset, and Boyle’s fractured MTV-style montage approach is merely annoying at first. But as the story builds increasingly credible interest, the slam-bang style and an elaborate flashback structure combine on behalf of the production’s own peculiar internal logic: part raw realism, part picaresque romance.
In the film’s present-tense action, Jamal is on the verge of facing the show’s 20-million-rupee question. But much of the film’s action is taken up with a series of flashbacks to Jamal’s earlier life, with each episode dramatizing the events by which he gained the specific knowledge that permits him to answer particular questions on the show. And that’s not all: Those flashbacks also serve as ferocious commentaries on the world that the orphaned brothers have had to navigate—the India of grinding poverty and a globalized economy, the lingering caste/class system, the subculture of beggars and thieves in which whole generations are trapped in cycles of exploitation and abuse.
Each of the main younger characters—Jamal, Salim and their precociously adored sweetheart Latika—are played by three actors at different ages (very young, pre-adolescent, teenaged), all to appealing effect, but with the teen performers—Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal, and Freida Pinto, respectively—making the strongest and most engaging impressions. Each of them is a kind of stock figure in the film’s spectacularly beleaguered brand of romance, and the more intriguing and nuanced characterizations are left to the older actors playing the variously compromised figures of adult authority—Kapoor’s boldly ambiguous exuberance in particular, but also (albeit to less extent) Irrfan Khan and Saurabh Shukla as Jamal’s grimly perplexed police interrogators.
One of the story’s most corrosive ironies has to do with an implication of the mass media (television and the movies alike) as key players in the societal game and blood-sport of exploitation and opportunism. I’m not sure that Boyle’s gimped-up style permits full recognition on this point, but it’s still to his credit that such matters remain present, even if only as part of this exuberantly sweet-and-sour movie’s peculiarly pungent aftertaste.