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Slumdog Millionaire

dir: Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan
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The question shouldn’t be whether Slumdog Millionaire really was the best or one of the best movies of 2008, or whether it was worthy of the top honours at the Academy Awards most recently. Such a pointless question can’t be answered objectively, because everyone knows, deep down in their heart of hearts, that the Oscars are no measure of worth, artistic or otherwise.

They are a measure of Hollywood’s self-regard, on the other hand, where it likes to reward itself for being so goddamn wonderful and deeply humanist, despite being an industry based on its brutal treatment of people. Every now and then (as in, pretty much every year), films that no-one could actually like are rewarded because of how wonderfully the voters make themselves feel for being so incredibly open-minded and cosmopolitan.

The real question is how the Academy can live with itself for giving an Oscar to the same man who directed A Life Less Ordinary, which is one of the most downright fucking awful movies ever made.

Sure, Danny Boyle and his highly talented crew have made a bunch of tremendous films that I have loved to bits, but Life Less Ordinary is one of those mistakes so total and so absolute that no redemptions are possible, no forgivenesses should ever be forthcoming.

Still, I always look forward to watching his flicks, even when they are wearing more awards and accolades than an insecure rapper wears crass but mega-pricey bling. Slumdog Millionaire has walked away with some of the biggest awards available for any movie, let alone one made by a British director in Hindi with a cast of unknowns.

This flick has been so badly misrepresented on so many levels. First of all, it does not represent Danny Boyle adding “Bollywood Musical” to the long list of genres in his CV. Most people know him as the guy who disgorged Trainspotting onto an unsuspecting world, but he’s done everything from zombie horror (28 Days Later) to heart-warming family fare (Millions). As well as romantic comedies and other monstrosities. Only people who’ve never actually watched an Indian movie could call Slumdog a Bollywood flick, or some kind of grim realistic depiction of contemporary Mumbai life, or even a magic realist take on the experiences of the untouchables.

First of all, it’s not four hours long, and whilst it has a lively soundtrack, there aren’t endless song and dance routines. The cheeky hero isn’t the noble son of a long-suffering, everything-sacrificing mother. The heroine isn’t a woman of absolute unsullied virtue prepared to wait 40 years for her beloved to come back to her after being unjustly jailed by an evil rich moustache twirling villain (who’s usually the son of the village’s leader). Of course there are plenty of other variations, but Slumdog Millionaire is not one of them. It’s aimed less at depicting the nobility of the Indian poor, or the mobility of the Indian middle class and more at representing a sometimes cheesy, sometimes touching story about how one guy out of the teeming billions in India might make it out of crushing, soul destroying poverty because It Is Written.

As in, it is his destiny.

As the film opens, we watch a young muslim Indian man being tortured by the cops. He is being tortured because, having made it onto India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, the producers tell the cops that Our Hero Jamal (Dev Patel) must be cheating. He is, after all, from the slums.

In between being tortured by the cops, and watching video footage of his time in the sun, Jamal gives a play-by-play explanation of what formative experiences in his cruel life actually provided him with the answers he and millions of other Indians couldn’t possibly know.

After all, he’s barely literate, even though he, like everyone, seems to be (conveniently) speaking English all the time. I think all those years of the British Raj and jokes about subcontinental telemarketers and phone tech support only perpetuates the myth that India is chock full of English speakers. It’s only around 5 per cent of the population, people. He is scrappy and resourceful, however, and ultimately a nice guy driven by love instead of greed.

And as we all know, everything always works out for nice people in love.

Jamal tells his tale starting with his early childhood, in what is probably one of the funniest and most disgusting moments in the film, where a very young Jamal shows just how committed he is to getting an autograph from 70s movie icon Amitabh Bachchan. Very committed.

Most of the other flashbacks (most of the film is flashback, or at least the past, making this a kind of Hindi Forrest Gump, with life being like a box of ladoos). And what a story it is. Jamal has survived and prospered through misery and poverty unknowable to the Western audiences that lap this shit up at awards time, to become more than a survivor. He’s, we’re hoping, going to become a winner. And not just a winner, but a Millionaire! Or, as the evil host keeps saying, a Millner! Which means Jamal’s going to make hats! Still, it’s better than picking through landfill garbage mountains every day with a stick, eh?

He loses his mother early on in the 1983 anti-Muslim riots, and has to rely on his wits, inherent goodness, and the viciousness of his older brother Salim to survive through a life of begging and petty crime. Even as children, even considering the vast array of threats and dangers around them, they get through. He gets through, we believe, because he is good and thus worthy of getting through. Really, it’s just someone else doing the heavy lifting.

Salim (Madhur Mittal as an adult), who would actually have been a more interesting character for the story to focus on if the film had actually given him enough character to focus the story on, is a violent, selfish monster who continually does stuff that makes no sense (to me) because there isn’t enough of a character there to assert whether he’s acting in character or out of character. Past a certain point, his actions become completely inexplicable, to the extent where I thought he might spontaneously combust or move to the States and join a clown college. Of course he represents what Jamal could have become if a) Jamal was selfish and b) if Jamal didn’t have someone in whom he could place all his hopes and dreams.

Whatever Salim does that doesn’t move the plot along jerkily and clumsily is standard, cliché, try-hard kid wants to be a gangster-type crap that goes nowhere.

And that perfect tube of wonderful is Jenny. Sorry, no, that’s not right, her name is Latika (Frieda Pinto), who Jamal falls in love with at a young age and never stops loving no matter what. When they are separated by cruel destiny, Jamal’s determination to see her again and be with her is the only motivation that keeps him going. Until of course cruel destiny and cynical screenwriters can reunite them several more times before the end, where they’ll either be united one last time, or never see each other again.

Latika’s only qualities are that she’s cute and Jamal loves her. If she managed to do, say or be anything else during the course of this flick, it has escaped me. That’s not to say that the actress doesn’t do a good job, it’s just that she’s an attractive prop as far as the film is concerned.

For a film with so much going on, and set in a place with so many people, there are really only two characters in this flick: Jamal and the cop interrogating him. Maybe the oily, venomous host of the gameshow qualifies, but everyone else, including some of the people most prominently on the screen or woven through his story, are barely one dimensional, if that. It’s the kind of flick where I guess it doesn’t matter that much, because it is ultimately a feel good movie. It is a movie we’re supposed to feel good about as we’re watching it, and afterwards when it’s finished, no matter what horrors it contains or only alludes to. The scenes of child exploitation are horrid, and they don’t gloss over the miseries facing millions of poor children, but the flick chooses (perhaps wisely, perhaps out of cowardice) not to focus on the negative.

But there’s no doubt about the hideousness of the Mumbai slums or any other slums for that matter. It’s just that Boyle and his cinematographer, perhaps inspired by the Brazilian masterpiece City of God, are more interested in giving a sense of the life of kids like Jamal and Salim rather than documenting the filth and exploring the misery in a credible way. They give us a feel for it, and an inkling of the scope (as in, that most of India’s population still lives in similar circumstances) without wallowing. Is that unfair to the squillions living in squalor who’ll never have the spare moments needed to watch a film like this because they’re too busy selling their seven-year-old daughters into marriage or being run over by the Hondas of their caste betters?

Perhaps, but I don’t really care.

Neither the time nor the inclination are mine to portray false outrage or to take feigned umbrage at the plight of those unrepresented. They’re not the focus of the story: Jamal is, and despite my many problems with this melodrama, there was plenty here to love. If you want a brutal and darkly humorous take on contemporary India, then read something like Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. Slumdog Millionaire is for lovers of filmic escapism, not people who want to kid themselves into believing they understand the plight of a nation’s people just because they spent some time watching a movie, read the book and bought the soundtrack.

There are plenty of wonderful scenes throughout this flick, some that are almost good enough to make you forget how trite the story is. The scene between Jamal and the game show host in the bathroom, where the host talks about having himself risen from the slums, and how Jamal has the chance to rise up as well, is devastating because of what happens further on and what it says about ‘those’ who manage to claw their way out and how they feel about the other untouchables trying to do likewise.

The scenes at the ‘orphanage’, run by a criminal so villainous that I can barely recall him without feeling sick, are not overplayed, and do a superb job at capturing one of the many potential fates that Jamal avoided through luck, fate, resourcefulness, whatever. When Jamal’s path crosses with one of the boys not as lucky as himself, it’s an incredibly touching moment.

That the film ends up at Agra and the Taj Mahal is a predictable cliché, but what the flick does there is gold. There’s something supremely enjoyable about watching the kids fleecing tourists, though I’m not sure why. Having been on the receiving end of these kinds of ruthless urchins in other countries, it’s strange that I’d watch their techniques here with such glee, but I certainly did.

As contrived as the ending was, I did leave the cinema happy, which is more than enough for my money. I stayed for the song and dance routine over the credits, which didn’t really do that much for me, but I enjoyed it all the same. It never really felt like I was watching an “Indian” story, but that didn’t bug me either. I think they did a pretty decent job with thin materials, and they made it feel like far more fun than the subject matter warranted. And we want Jamal to succeed in the end, unless we too, like his brother, like the criminal who preys on children, like the host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, are monsters too.

Like any decent flick about or set in India, it reinforces my desire never to go to India, so the film’s done its job perfectly. Enjoy!

7 times won’t someone please think of the Indian children out of 10

“Money and women. The reasons for making most mistakes in life. Looks like you've mixed up both.” – Slumdog Millionaire