Alibi V.17 No.51 • Dec 18-24, 2008 

Film Review

Slumdog Millionaire

Boyle confounds expectations with orphans, torture, game show hosts, romance and musical numbers

Slumdog Millionaire

Directed by Danny Boyle

Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor

“Seriously, lady. Kiss me and I’ll turn into a prince.”
“Seriously, lady. Kiss me and I’ll turn into a prince.”

Woe to the ambitious journalist, author or film critic who, 30 years from now, tries to write the definitive study of director Danny Boyle’s career. How to summarize a man who’s made a modern film noir (Shallow Grave), a blackly comic look at junkies in Scotland (Trainspotting), an uncategorizable comic crime romance fantasy (A Life Less Ordinary), an exotic thriller about utopian society (The Beach), a ’roid rage zombie movie (28 Days Later...), a quaint family drama about a kid who stumbles across a fortune (Millions), a high-minded space opera that morphs into a slasher film (Sunshine) and a Bollywood-inspired wish-fulfillment drama in which a poor Indian kid gets on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in order to impress his lifelong ladylove?

Changing styles as often as he jumps genres, Boyle has nonetheless proved himself an inventive if erratic filmmaker. His latest, arguably most unexpected detour into left field is Slumdog Millionaire, that above-mentioned Bollywood-inspired outing. In it, Dev Patel (from BBC’s teen drama “Skins”) takes on the role of Jamal Malik, an impoverished orphan growing up in the slums of Mumbai (known until fairly recently as Bombay). Joining Jamal in his coming-of-age adventures is tough older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and the female third of their “Three Musketeers,” Latika (Freida Pinto). We get glimpses of Jamal’s rough-and-tumble life story, but they’re scattered throughout the film’s flashback-heavy narrative.

The story begins properly with the twentysomething Jamal being dragged into a police station and brutally tortured. Seems he’s been pulled off the set of the local iteration of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Being only one question away from winning the multimillion-dollar prize, producers have their doubts about Jamal’s legitimacy. How could an uneducated ghetto-dweller know the answers to all these questions? Surely, the kid is cheating. As Jamal explains the key to each individual answer, we see a chapter of Jamal’s past life, illustrating how he came to such hard-won knowledge.

Surviving their childhood (no mean feat) as scrappy hustlers, Jamal and Salim fall under the spell of a local crime lord. Latika is both lost and found, Salim is corrupted by greed and only plucky, resourceful Jamal escapes to adulthood with some scrap of his innocence intact. Throughout his life’s journey of ups and downs (mostly downs), Jamal maintains his loyalty to Latika. More than just his childhood companion, she’s “the one who got away” (or more accurately, “the one who was kidnapped and sold into a life of potential sexual slavery”). Jamal dreams of rescuing Latika from poverty, crime and other even more unsavory influences. But what’s a poor slumdog to do? Naturally, go on a TV game show, get rich instantly and sweep the love of his life away to greener pastures.

Using Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A as a touchstone, Boyle creates a curious collision between grim reality (he pulls few punches about life in India) and cinematic fairy tale (going so far as to work a Bollywood dance routine into the film’s sunny climax). This is basically City of God (Fernando Meirelles’ Oscar-nominated saga of kids growing up in the slums of Brazil) crossed with a Horatio Alger novel. (Has anyone actually read one of his books in the last 50 years?) To top it off, it’s all set to the beat of some maddeningly catchy Hindi-pop tunes.

Boyle’s choice of ingredients is sometimes confusing. What’s he going for here, exactly? The fractured narrative steals a lot of the tension from the film. Violent moments (more suggestively unsettling than outright bloody) are at serious odds with the overall optimistic tone. And Boyle probably could have pushed even further into the realm of magical realism to drive his point home. Still, the director, the screenwriter and the charismatic cast bring it on home in the end, creating a strangely exhilarating mishmash of dazzling cinematography, sly humor, idealized romance, tough crime saga, exotic travelogue and uplifting urban fable.