India is fast emerging as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, a fact that seems to be in conflict with its poor infrastructure and the slums that fill its cities. The cinema of India is not particularly well known for depicting any of this, it’s mainly known for large budget audience pandering musicals, a cinema that most in the west are aware exists but which few have not bothered to actually see. Oddly it is mostly outside filmmakers who have been more interested in depicting the social hardships in India with movies like Water, which was made by the Indian-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta. The new Danny Boyle film, Slumdog Millionaire, would seem to be a much more realistic depiction of the streets of India; but it’s quickly apparent that it is just as interested in pleasing audiences as the Bollywood musicals, except that it’s western audiences it seeks to please.
The film follows a young man from the streets of Mumbai India named Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) who finds his way onto the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (which looks and sounds identical to the American version), where he’s reached the level of ten million Rupees despite a lack of any formal education. The local authorities are highly suspicious of his advance through the ranks, so they arrest him and subject him to extreme interrogation. A more disciplined inspector (Irfan Khan) eventually shows up and decides to ask him, question by question, how he managed to attain all this knowledge. At this point the film begins a series of flashbacks in which it is revealed where he learned each question and which together tell the whole arc of Jamal’s life and how he came to find himself on a game show.
It would be reductive to call this an Indian version of Forrest Gump, but the similarities between the two films are striking. Both films tell the recent history of a country through the life story of a seemingly unimportant and lowly citizen who stumbles through larger events. Both are told through framing stories, though this game show story is significantly more interesting than Gump’s bus stop talk, in fact as far as framing stories go this game show scheme is really top-notch. Unlike Gump, though, Jamal is less likely to actually stubble through historical events so much as social touchstones of changing times. This is one of the film’s weakness, it occasionally feels like a white tourists guided tour through India’s stereotypes, almost like the writers brainstormed everything that comes immediately to mind while thinking about the country and through them all in. Bollywood films: check, Hindi Muslim conflict: check, Taj Mahal: check, telemarketing: check, they leave almost no stone unturned, and this is a problem when it would have felt much more natural for them to stick to one region. It’s almost like if an Indian decided to make a movie about America and made absolutely certain that he included refereces to the Western movie genre, a rally about the abortion issue, a trip to the Lincoln Memorial, and someone working at the Coca-Cola factory.
Another major work I’d compare the film to is Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” especially during the flashbacks to Jamal’s young days as an orphan on the streets. These scenes are particularly effective at capturing the chaos of the Mumbai streets. The depictions of the Mumbai ghettos feel somewhat influenced by Fernando Meirelles’ excellent City of God. While the life lived by the young Jamal is quite grim but there is a sense he doesn’t really see it that way, there is a sense of Dickensian joviality to his exploits. He’s a precocious little slumdog and in the tradition of these sorts of stories he finds all kinds of creative and somewhat amusing ways to get by.
The camera work here is often handheld and the cinematography is relatively grainy compared to most movies, and the editing is fairly aggressive. This camera work is not done to make the audience even subconsciously think they’re watching a documentary, it’s closer to what Paul Greengrass has achieved with movies like The Bourne Ultimatum, except here it’s applied to a drama instead of a thriller. The catch is, that Boyle rarely ever goes too far with any of these techniques, the handheld camera isn’t anywhere near as obvious as in Greengrass’ work, the grainy film stock is still clearly 35 millimeter and still quite slick, and the editing shouldn’t be disorienting even to the most sensitive of viewers, but each technique is used just enough to give the movie a certain degree of grit and keep the pace very fast.
The film’s music mostly excellent. The original music was composed by a legendary Bollywood composer A. R. Rahman who has clearly mastered the art of using Indian instruments and musical styles to score films. Rahman’s score is very effective and is probably part of why the film moves so quickly while telling a story with a pretty large scope. However, I do take issue with the film’s use of the M.I.A. song “Paper Planes,” a song that is closely associated with the summer of 2008 and feels completely out of place in a flashback scene set before the song was even written.
The film’s spoken language is divided between English and Hindi, which can be a jarring mix. The entire section featuring an Adult Jamal including the game show segments are in plain English, while most of the flashbacks to him as a child are in subtitled Hindi. I really wish that Boyle had just stuck with one language or the other, he should have either made the whole film in Hindi to reflect the actual language of the Indian people, or if he wanted to avoid the whole subtitle thing he should have done it consistently. As it is, the film seems to depict Jamal mysteriously switching languages somewhere around puberty, and the rest of the country following suit. This is made all the more confusing when instances pop up of his character actually speaking English to American, British, and German tourists, making it rather unclear when the spoken English is supposed to simply be a translation for the audience or an actual instance of the character speaking English.
This language problem is made all the more annoying because of the filmmakers decision to use stylized subtitles. These are subtitles that appear in a number of different areas of the screen rather than staying on the bottom like most film subtitles. I didn’t like this technique in Man on Fire, I didn’t like it in Night Watch, and I don’t like it here. When subtitles consistently appear in the same place at the bottom of the screen it’s a lot easier for them to blend in with the language of the film and cease to be noticed then when they’re bouncing all over the place.
This language material is distracting, but certainly forgivable, what’s not so forgivable is that the film can be a little predictable at times. Particularly in a pair of scenes that are meant to be suspenseful Who Wants to Be a Millionaire questions, like situation about 2/3 of the way through the movie where he’s given an opportunity to cheat, but anyone whose caught on to the film’s intended message about fate know exactly how Jamal will handle this. More egregious then this is a case of incredibly obvious foreshadowing where Jamal runs across a piece of useless trivia early on in his life, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know this is going to come up again in the final question. Did I only pick up on these because I’m jaded by seeing so many other movies? Possibly, but if Boyle had been a little less blatant in his foreshadowing on that second point it would have been a little more suspenseful.
A lot of the negative things I’m bringing up aren’t really huge problems; in fact they’re flaws bordering on nitpicking. The reason I find this so interesting is that Danny Boyle’s last film, Sunshine, had a flaw toward the end that was much more egregious then anything I mentioned; and yet I found myself much more willing to forgive Sunshine for its flaw then I am Slumdog Millionaire. I think this is because all of that film’s problems were confined to the last fifteen minutes and leave the preceding ninety minutes completely flawless, whereas Slumdog Millionaire’s flaws are littered throughout the movie and pervade the entire project.
I have problems with the movie, but that doesn’t mean Slumdog Millionaire isn’t a movie I can happily recommend for anyone to see. At the end of the day this is a feel good story about a character triumphing over adversity, and one that knows when to pander and when not to pander and never feels saccharin. Basically, it’s a crowd pleaser for people who know how to detect cheese; I’m not surprised that it was able to get enthusiasm from festival audiences. It should not however be mistaken for a wildly creative film. In one key way, it actually reminds me of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in that both films take stories that might seem cliché, but tell them in areas we’re not so used to seeing on screen in order to seem fresher then they probably are. For the most part, Slumdog Millionaire probably is strong enough to get away with this.
***1/2 out of four