Slumdog Millionaire, self-styled ‘feel-good film of the year’, starts out harrowing, charts a nose-dive trajectory though evil and human suffering, and never quite manages to shake off the beginning and middle for the ‘rags-to-rajah’ boy-gets-girl happy ending.
The quirky premise of a biography choreographed with a quiz show seems smart as the pieces initially fall into place, but gradually the flashbacks threaded together in perfect chronological array by obtuse connections to trivia become a slightly implausible plot device. The narrative falters too because the ascent to the only-once-mentioned twenty million rupee jackpot is non-linear*, making the proximity of the conclusion ambiguous throughout.
The cinematography is excellent, especially in the slums of Mumbai, transforming them into a blazingly colourful, bustling hive of excitement and vigour. Many critics laud director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dodd Mantle for injecting them with a verisimilar vitality, painting an impression of how the real inhabitants still cope, and laugh, in spite of their surroundings. As an openly ignorant Westerner, I couldn’t help wondering if we were being patronised slightly; idyllic the slums certainly are not, and the tenacity of the human spirit seems no excuse to take the almost colonial position that it’s OK as long as Johnny Slumdog is making the best of a bad lot, what what?
We are quickly introduced to the two main characters in child actor form, domineering older brother Salim and too-clean hero Jamal, whose innocence is placed at odds with the dark world of murder, mutilation and crime they find themselves bumbling through.
At times, the implausible misadventures of the invulnerable young slumdogs feel a little too much like low-brow stoner duo romp Harold and Kumar escape from Guantanamo Bay. The low point in this regard is when our ragamuffins tumble from the roof of a train moving at high speed, roll down a steep bank, somehow sustain no injuries and, as the dust clears, realise that they’ve landed right next to the Taj Mahal. Given that another scene in the film depicts a comic brainstorm session where Indian call-centre staff, trying to come up with things one might find in Edinburgh, manage to list castles, kilts and Ben Nevis, this showcasing of such a clichéd Indian landmark shows a startling lack of self-awareness.
The slumdogs make it through two generations of actors, the third iteration bringing us up to the present day. The star, Jamal’s oldest incarnation Dev Patel, seems to have fixed his face in a gormless gape for all occasions. He could be replaced in most scenes by a cardboard cut-out bearing this idiotic expression. Wondering about the answer on Who wants to be a millionare?, unsure of what to say to the hard-nosed police bloke, catching sight of the love of his life; all these and more get the open-mouth treatment. Looking out for this will leave you in frequent inappropriate hysterics when he pulls out his show-stopping fizzog in otherwise sombre scenes, as though trying to get his head around the gravity of the situation. So, sorry for pointing that out.
The last half-hour of the film is almost totally unnecessary. The artistry of Salim’s concluding self-sacrifice doesn’t quite take the forced saccharine taste away from his redemption. The contrived happy ending feels too tacky, too predictable, and too tainted by the horrors of the journey to raise a smile. On the most simplistic level, Jamal has cast off his slumdog past and got the girl; but the clear implication that the only escape a Mumbai down-and-out has is to win the jackpot on an imported TV show is disempowering and depressing.
See it for the blazing cinematography and take the Indian culture with a pinch of salt, and Slumdog is a film worth watching. Go in goaded by a clean sweep of rave reviews and gongs, expecting the feel-good film of the year, and you will come out as I did, slightly disorientated and dispirited, but probably the richer for it.
* By which I mean non-base-2-logarithmic, but let’s not get nerdy in a film review.