A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, R, 120 mins.

Jamal Malik (older): Dev Patel / Latika (older): Freida Pinto / Salim Malik (older): Madhur Mittal / Prem: Anil Kapoor / Inspector: Irrfan Khan / Jamal (middle): Tanay Hemant Chheda / Latika (middle): Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar / Salim (middle): Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala / Jamal (youngest): Ayush Mahesh Khedekar / Latika (youngest): Rubina Ali / Salim (youngest): Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail

Directed by Danny Boyle. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup

In English with Hindi dialogue.

Danny Boyle has certainly made a distinct name for himself as a skilled and fearsomely ambitious filmmaker, ready to tackle just about any type of subject matter and theme.  The resume alone for this British/Irish-Catholic director speaks volumes: From his potent and effective 1994 debut film SHALLOW GRAVE to his stylish and surreal drug trip effort TRAINSPOTTING to his zombified 28 DAYS LATER to his family friendly MILLIONS from 2004 to his recent sci-fi space epic SUNSHINE, Boyle has more than revealed his unbridled passion for not remaking the same film twice.  Even some of his more loathsome failures – like his muddled and confused A LIFE LESS ORDINARY and his wrongheaded THE BEACH – don’t totally distract his natural talents for making aesthetically confident films.  Even if those efforts failed to appeal on a story level, his ability at creating a headstrong visual momentum for his films are undeniable.  Oftentimes, they work as  primal visceral experiences. 

I think that SLUMMDOG MILLIONAIRE is one of these kinds of films.  It’s certainly unlike anything the director has ever attempted before and throughout its running time it fosters an unthinkable level of pure, out of body escapism.  Co-directed by Loveleen Tandan (who perhaps is rather unfairly uncredited here), written by Simon Beaufoy (THE FULL MONTY), which in turn was adapted from the Boeke Prize winning Indian novel, Q and A, by author and diplomat Vikas Swarup, the film is set in India and tells the frequently moving – if not a bit too simplistically manipulative – story of a young and very uneducated man that comes form the Dharavi slums of Mumbai who ends up being on his country’s version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?.  While on the show he achieves the impossible by exceeding every viewer’s expectations with his innate and extraordinary ability to answer the most difficult of questions, which unavoidably has the game’s host and law enforcement officials suspecting that he is a fraud.   Ultimately, his appearance on the game show is done less out of financial glory and more out of deep emotional needs: By being on the show he hopes that it will attract the attention of a young woman that he has loved for his entire life, but has been irreversibly separated from him due to vicious circumstances. 

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a film where its influences can be easily observed.  It's more obvious reflections of commercial Hindu cinema (especially, at one very key moment, the Bollywood musical) is deeply reverberated.  Boyle himself has revealed that he has also been an embracer of movies that have a distinctive Mumbai sensibility, ones that particularly provide a dark and dreary portal into the Mumbai underworld, which displayed the violence, corruption, and urban chaos typified there.  The latter element can certainly be seen throughout SLUMDOG and the film's first half or so is a searing and evocative expose on the incredible poverty-stricken areas of the nation where children and their respective families live a hellish ordeal of strife and meager subsistence.  One of the film’s unqualified triumphs is how it does such an extraordinary job of immersing viewers in this foreign land, which never once feels like the byproduct of  soundstages, special effects or computer tinkering.  Much like landmark works that were astounding for their realism and sense of stunning immediacy (like CITY OF GOD and THE CONSTANT GARDENER), SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is an utterly breathtaking visual odyssey where you feel truly transported to its settings.  The manner with which Boyle and company make such use of compelling Indian locations is one of the film’s greatest wonders: you rarely find yourself doubting their veracity or integrity. 

Apart from the film’s masterful production values, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is self-effacingly steeped in romanticism.  Boyle straddles two distinct hemispheres here: The movie begins with such gut-retching harshness, so much so that when it does make the transition to be an uplifting and audience clamoring romantic fable about the perseverance of the heart and how anyone – no matter how impoverished – can overcome all odds and find true love, it’s hard not to stand and joyously cheer.  By the time the film reaches its conclusion, which culminates in a blissful, carefree, and jovial large scale Bollywood musical/dance number, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE has all but cemented itself as the feel good film of 2008, which is kind of extraordinary considering the intense and horrific moments of heart-rending tragedy that have occurred before.  What began as a film with dreary and depressing Dickensian overtones about depressing poverty and despair morphs into a love conquers all allegory that shows the power of guileless determination and passion.  The film, as a result, is certainly anything but subtle – and perhaps a bit too naïve and idealistic for its own good– but it never apologizes for its starry-eyed excesses. 

The dreamer in question in the film is Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), once a poor slum boy from Mumbai who finds himself at the center of the media spotlight when it becomes apparent that he is going to walk away with the largest prize for completing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.  The film is told largely in flashback form, showing most of his 20 years from impoverished “slumdog” all the way up to the events that led to his fateful appearance on the show.  He certainly is a very “special” contestant, seeing as he possesses no formal education, but is able to correctly answer the most obscure of questions, which helps to quickly cement himself as a cultural and national hero.  At one point he has achieved the impossible by earning 10 million rupees and just when it appears that he is going to take the biggest chance of his life and go for the grand prize, the show immediately breaks for the evening and sets itself to return the following day.  Unfortunately for Jamal, the seedy and unscrupulous game show host has him arrested on suspicion of cheating by the local authorities.  

The vigilant Jamal does not reveal – at first – how he knew all of the answers, even while logic points out to his guilt.  Faced with this, the officers begin to torture the poor lad (which, no doubt, gave the film it’s unnecessary R rating; it’s not graphic, but intense, not too much so to earn the film anything above a PG-13).  Jamal eventually does agree to tell his side of the story and – through various flashback points – he reveals how he was able to correctly answer all of those questions though hints dropped throughout his life.  The film then weaves and interweaves through his experiences, largely connected with two other integral people in his life: his violent prone and cruel brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal) and the love of his life, Latika (the exquisitely luminous Frieda Pinto).  

Jamal’s early childhood life was typified by a brutal and barbaric existence on the streets, but as he grows older with his brother he goes from orphaned street kid to petty thief to impostor and eventually to survivor.  His entire upbringing, largely void of any adult presence, is kind of miraculous made up and improvised on the fly, often showing what a defiant and good-natured soul he was even during the worst hardships.  This leads him on various treks through India, from the dilapidated streets of Mumbai to the beauty and pageantry of the Taj Mahal and eventually to the seedy and deplorable Mumbai underworld, which allows him to reconnect with Latika after years of searching for her.  We bare witness to all of this, and his various dire experiences shows just how he is able to answer all of those tough Millionaire questions.  As the film makes its way to its final act, it almost becomes less about him winning fame and fortune and more about whether Jamal will final get the girl and live happily ever after. 

If there is one thing that SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE does effortlessly then it is - as stated - its flawless and remarkably realized production design and breathless and energetic direction by Danny Boyle.   The director uses starling cinematography, breakneck editing (but not in that kind of Michael Bay, queasy-cam style of excess) and combines all of that with a rip-roaring and explosive music track that gels together to drive the film’s narrative momentum with a forceful and dynamic propulsion.  The film is patiently and precisely constructed, but it rushes by without hesitation or regret and never stops to catch its breath.  Using astonishing hand held digital cameras – which gives us such a kinetic and alive viewpoint of the minuscule details of the alleys and corners of Mumbai - Boyle crafts such a sense of head strong and lighting fast intimacy to the proceedings.  A.R. Rahman’s lively and boisterous hip hop soundtrack and Chris Dickens’ potent and vivacious editing compliments this as well and the end result is a beautifully constructed movie experience that lets you feel every sweeping bit of action, romance, and drama that punctuates the film.  Few films this year have had such power with aggressively luring me into their worlds with a hypnotic-like grip. 

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a film that has been dogged by controversy, some of it deservedly so.  For starters, there was a minor uproar during the announcement of the 66th Golden Globes when a campaign was started to demand that Loveleen Tanden, who Danny Boyle appointed as co-director, be deemed eligible as a co-nominee (she would later gracefully allow her name to be taken off of the production as to not taint it, a classy and selfless artistic move if there ever was one).  And then there were reports of the treatment of some of the child actors (Rubina Alie and Azharuddin Ismail, who played Latika and Ismail as children) were apparently paid between £500 and £1700 for an entire year’s salary.  Reports have stated that the two economically depressed youth still live in makeshifts shacks in the slums of Bandra.  Boyle and the producers have stated, on record, that trust funds have been set up for the children, which would go towards their education, but exact numbers for some inexplicable reason are a mystery.  This is a somewhat sad and unfortunate footnote to the production on the whole.

One other criticism – which I happen to adhere to in some respects – is that SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE has perpetuated western-fuelled stereotypes about poverty and economic depression in India (which have had some calling it "slum voyeurism”).  Granted, there are some inescapable truths to the types of conditions that the film rightfully portrays, but there are some troublesome issues with whether or not using these real world extremes is exploitative for the sake of telling a conventional, Hollywood-styled romantic picture.  Even when the film was seeing a limited release in November of 2008 - with images of terrorists attacking a hotel in Mumbai beeming through TV sets around the world - screenwriter Simon Beaufoy was noted for expressing doubts as to whether or not the film was a “rather naïve vision of Mumbai."

One of the largest problems with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is its rather cavalier disregard to dealing with the harsher political and religious strife that taints India.  Yes, the film yearns to be an uplifting and heart-warming parable about overcoming dreadful societal odds, but there are occasions in the film where its idealized vision of love and romance all but neuters any sense of it dealing with some of its thorny and polarizing socio-political issues.  SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE uses strife and poverty to boost the destiny-centric storyline, which is a bit counterproductive.  We have, in some instances, would-be moments of shocking outrage and violence that are kind of pathetically reduced to something unwholesomely vague (just consider an early scene of a bloody and chaotic riot – which claims the life of one key figure close to Jamal – where the most that the film achieves at religious political commentary is one of the crazy zealots in the mob literally shouting, “They’re Muslims…get ‘em!”).  There is nothing inherently wrong with delivering a consequence-free and apolitical film about hope and determination, but when one tries to do that while using real life catastrophes and unimaginable heartache…there’s just something unfeeling and insensitive about the approach.  Certainly, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE could have achieved a feel good status by still having the time to seriously comment on the underprivileged and devastating physical and social conditions its characters live in. 

But…alas…the film is a crowd-pleasing entertainment, I guess, and one those levels it definitely does not disappoint.  The film reeks of uplift and warm sentimentality, perhaps so much so that it manages to smother all of the deplorable brutality, sexual abuse, immense poverty, etc.. that personifies the first half of the film.  Despite its approach at going to foreign and exotic locales and using an inventive narrative approaches, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE has an ending as conventional as any Hollywood romantic dramedy.  The film’s preponderance on the overwhelming power of personal destiny, at times, seems somewhat heavy-handed, not to mention that the reasons provided for Salam’s unbelievable ability to answer all of those Millionaire questions seem tainted by head-shaking contrivances and coincidences.  Further to that is the film’s panicky rush to its happily ever after ending, which is assisted by an incredulous and late-breaking change of heart by one main character that lacks anything in the way of plausible motivation.  The manner this person has an extremely quick change of heart – considering all of his past indiscretions – never once seems believable, which further makes the climax feel more manufactured. 

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a film with an unbelievable history: Before Fox Searchlight came to the film’s rescue after its positive festival circuit with the necessary funding for promotion and release, there were palpable fears that it may never even see the light of day beyond a direct-to-video release.  This ultimate tale of an underdog looking for love  emerged late in 2008 as an underdog Oscar nominee and it now looks looks poised to walk away with some serious Golden hardware come the third week of February.  The film most definitely has several merits (wonderful character performances, richly textured direction, a real sense of transcending realism to its settings) and is easily the kind of Oscar bait that the Academy loves (real life struggles and tragedies set amidst a tale of human perseverance and ultimately personal triumph).  Boyle’s film undoubtedly has found a resonating cord with audience members as well, as its heavily romanticized aura is the stuff of lay filmgoer appreciation.  I deeply appreciated and respected SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE’s astonishing visual flourishes and, more than ever, feel that Danny Boyle has cemented himself as one of the most technically savvy and enterprising filmmakers of his generation.  

If you look closely and peal back the layers of the film’s obvious flaws, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE still is a wonderfully evocative, frequently affecting and hard-to-resist inspirational fairy tale…but it’s nonetheless a slight and somewhat trivialized film experience, especially considering its glamorized and uncomplicated outlook at its impoverished settings and barbaric reality based themes...not to mention all of the recent and rampant hype the film has garnered.  

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