Slumdog Millionaire

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.

Comments

  1. Did you get the point of this movie?

    I would not look at this film as simply a feel good, rags to riches story and I haven’t read any reviews that claim this either (although maybe I just missed those ones).

    I agree that the quiz show biography is implausible, but this is a fresh idea, different from anything I have seen before. It brought an extra dimension to the film, a comment on how difficult it is to escape from being a slumdog, when even your supposed helper, the host, is not on your side either. Admittedly this is “disempowering and depressing”, but in some of the worlds largest and worse slums there cannot be many alternative escape. Game shows and crime are almost certainly the easiest options and both are covered by this film. You might have to explain the nonlinear ascent to the jackpot, because I don’t think i get your point.

    Interestingly I tend to disagree with you on the cinematography, it pissed me off, but that is down to a personal dislike jerky filming and unusual camera angles, something which I always think takes a way from the story by making it harder to see what is happeing, but after the first half hour this grumble became less relevant. I also think that calling this film patronising is a bit harsh. The slums were not portrayed as pleasant and the only characters who seemed to be showing the tenacity of human spirit were the two young boys and young boys will be happy and make the most of life wherever they are.

    I also think you might have misunderstood the falling of a train and landing in Agra scene. Between being physically removed from the train and realising they are next to the Taj Mahal, the slumdogs have aged by half a dozen years. This fall is a metaphor for their tumble through five or six years of life, coming out unscathed and ending up next to one of the most stunning buildings ever built. The line “Salim, are we in heaven?”, sums up the gap between the ugliest and the most beautiful parts of India, for surely the Taj would seem like a glimpse of heaven to someone who knows mainly the slums of Mumbai. They were not thrown from the train to land next to the Taj, but fate brought them there by some other means.

    I agree with your assessment that Patel’s acting leaves a lot to be desired. Yet somehow in a kind of Orlando Bloom in the Pirates films or Sylvester Stallone ever, the wooden, one-trick acting just sort of works. This film reminded me of a Dickens novel, which I always find have very one dimensional lead characters, surrounded by very interesting ones. The rags to riches, urban life portrayed does seem very Dickensian, so i wonder if this is what Boyle was attempting by making Jamal less interesting than every other character? The most interesting thing about Jamal is his blind devotion to Salim for the first half of the film, showing how people stand by there family no matter how shit they are. Salim’s dislike of Latika, because he see’s her as competition for Jamal is a fascinating insight into the envy the very young are capable of.

    The ending was predictable, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Jamal putting love before money, a love founded on the “horrors of the journey”, is uplifting. The fact that he gets the money is putting a little bit of Hollywood into the Bollywood and almost irrelevant to the film, the conclusion of the story was when Latika answered the phone and he knew she was safe.

    Everything in this film has to be taken with a small pinch of salt, but after a couple of days reflection, this really is one of the best movies of recent year. it covers as wide range of topics as I’ve seen in a movie and its 3-strand plot is unlike anything i have ever seen before. However, it is certainly not one of the most enjoyable to watch. It is hard watch people having lives worse than I have ever imagined, knowing that their hopes of escape are non existent. Disorientating and dispiriting perhaps, but a film not far from a masterpiece and we are certainly richer for seeing it.

  2. I wonder how my review would have differed had this not been a self-billed feel-good film, and I wonder who imposed that tagline, and who chose to put a quotation from Time, describing the film as ‘a buoyant hymn to life’, on the poster, and who edited the trailer… It was either a deftly-executed piece of cinematic duplicity or, since half of the reviewers seem to agree, a widespread total misjudgement of the film’s content. It’s weird.

    I admit to not having noticed the ageing between the train and the Taj, but I still think choosing that particular landmark was something of a simplistic cliché. I think I am quite biased against the idea of fate and destiny, and it’s something I find particularly hard to suspend my disbelief over, which probably fuelled my dislike of the quiz-driven coincidence-heavy biography.

    My complaint about the non-linear ascent was that it wasn’t made especially clear how high we were going, and that the prize money repeatedly leapt non-consecutively, on one occasion from 16,000 to 250,000 rupees, on the same question. This was confusing, and detracted from the plot.

    I think what’s probably unfortunate about my review is that I did enjoy the film, but it doesn’t come across because I’m not really sure why. I think I’ve done an adequate job of pointing out a few sometimes-quibbling shortcomings, but it’s much harder to express why I feel that I took something away from this harrowing tale other than a sense of emotional dislocation.

    Apologies to anyone I misled: it is good. See it.

  3. hi it rez !! slumdog millinair wz gr8 mn!! i lved da film it woz soo tragic n cute at da end!! da guy iz so cute !! wow it woz a nyc film i loved it soo much n i enjiyed watchin it loll !! it looked like it woz based on a reality person !! it woz an awsum film diz mde lot of people feel proud n creat a dramatic emotions!! lol but overal da film woz soo damm goooddddd!!! iz da best !!
    rez xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx xxx thnk u

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