[18 December 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We all want to escape - our sense of self, our worthless lives, those moments of unfulfilling social conformity. Yet few of us have to literally run for our salvation. Hope usually comes in a moment of clarity, a well learned life lesson, or the unexpected aid of a close friend or family. In essence, karma can occasionally step-in and re-right the order of things. If you have to sprint afterwards, it means that something about your cosmic disposition still isn’t settled. For most of his life, Indian street kid (or “slumdog”) Jamal Malik has been running - from persecution, from pain, and from the poverty that threatens to swallow him whole. Yet it’s within this setting that fascinating filmmaker Danny Boyle finds a ray of solid cinematic hope. He takes it and turns it into what is, unquestionably, one of 2008’s best efforts.
While appearing on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Jamal is arrested by the police and charged with cheating. He is only one inquiry away from the jackpot. After a severe and rather brutal interrogation, the cops discover some interesting facts about the boy. Born in the slums of Mumbai, he recalls his life as an urchin while proving that he knows the answer to every question asked. We learn of his mother’s death at the hands of anti-Muslim protestors. We see his tenure as a part of an orphanage as organized crime begging scheme. We meet his hotheaded trickster brother Salim, and the girl he has loved ever since he first laid eyes on her, Lakita. After a stint as a faux tour guide at the Taj Mahal, and his current trade as a coffee boy in a cellphone call center, he appears streetwise, if not particularly educated. Still, Jamal does indeed know the answers. They’re just so happen to be the landmarks in his otherwise unexceptional life.
There ought to be a law against Danny Boyle and his undeniable moviemaking brilliance. After all, if an everyday item threatened to take your breath away as often and as intensely as this Englishman’s many cinematic masterworks, the government would at least step in and find a way to stick a warning label on it. After the serious sci-fi stunner Sunshine, Boyle’s trip into the darkened heart of impoverished India is the perfect illustration of celluloid as avant-art. From landscapes that literally look alien in nature and creation, to a simple love story spread out among elements both tragic and electric, this is perhaps the best film of Boyle’s already illustrious career - and this is the man who gave us Trainspotting, Millions, and 28 Days Later, mind you.
But Slumdog Millionaire is different. It uses a clever plot contrivance (each answer on the game show inspires another flashback to a point in Jamal’s life) and within said individuals stories, Boyle gets to experiment with tone, approach, and creative syntax. The early scenes are the funniest, as they featuring incredibly endearing child actors illustrating the spunk and determination that drives many a dead-end Indian kid. While some of the humor can be scatological (little Jamal literally crawls through shit to see his favorite Bollywood hero), Boyle never flinches. This is especially true of the pivotal moment when our hero loses his mother. Shot and edited in a highly stylized, kinetic manner, we get caught up in the riots, and are resolved to the devastation that results.
Boyle then switches gears, giving us life from a little one’s perspective. The trip to the orphanage has a real Oliver Twist tone, especially when your substitute Fagan shows his incredibly cruel disposition. Later, after rescuing Latika from a brothel, the brothers hole up in an abandoned hotel, the implied luxury countermanding their previous dirt poor survival. At this moment, Slumdog Millionaire transforms from a travelogue (complete with compelling moments at the world famous Taj) into a personal story about dignity and self-reliance. Within the framework of a craven, criminal underworld, the boys are made to chose. Jamal becomes an office flunky. His brother, like so many before, lets the allure of easy money and quick trigger violence overwhelm him.
By breaking up the story into these two halves, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who loosely adapted the book Q&A by Vikas Swarup) gives us the whole post-colonial Indian experience in a nutshell. On the one end is the seething tide of humanity, an overpopulated mass unable to do much except exist and expire. Then there are the wealthy, the new millennial millionaires and business impresarios who literally rape their homeland, utilizing interchangeable slave-like labor to make their money. Within this set-up Jamal sees a way out. All he has to do is appear on the country’s favorite game show, rack up the cash, and he’ll have everything - including Latika.
The romance between the two destined lovers can be seen as Slumdog‘s sole weak link, an unexplained obsession that’s too old school Hollywood to be anything other than fantasy. But because Boyle gets such compelling work out of his mostly newcomer cast (including remarkable turns by leads Dev Patel and Freida Pinto) we forgive the narrative contrivances and simply believe. In fact, a lot of Slumdog Millionaire reminds us of why we love movies in the first place. It whisks us away to locations exotic and new. It introduces us to people and life experiences far beyond our own daily sphere of influence, and delivers both in a way that excites our senses, stirs our imagination, and satisfies our basic entertainment needs - and then some.
In a world which is rampantly turning multicultural, the innate pleasures of Slumdog Millionaire reflect this growing global concept of acceptance. It’s miles away from other movies set in India, it’s belief in all facets of the society - good, bad, rich, poor, corrupt, innocent, camp, cruel - helping to turn the mysterious modern country into a combination of Oz and some interplanetary rest stop. You have truly never seen backdrops like those featured in this miraculous film. And through them all, a young man runs - to catch up to his destiny, to find grace within his lowlife circumstances, to snag the elusive girl he always loved. Jamal may not become a millionaire, but in the process of leaving his past behind, he will become his own man. Thanks to Danny Boyle’s undeniable genius, it’s a trip well worth taking.