After three tries over two months only to be rejected by sold-out showings, I finally managed to see the golden child (or Little Miss Sunshine, if you will) of 2008 cinema, Slumdog Millionaire. Directed by once-hep director Danny Boyle, Slumdog is a darling little film, but far from daring.
The set-up finds a young man, Jamal, barely in his 20’s, in the hot seat on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire”. Jamal is the “slumdog” from the title, a Muslim growing up in the most impoverished of regions, barefoot and living and bathing amongst and atop the trash heaps, quite literally. The folk from India who survive living in such conditions must have the strongest of constitutions and immune systems. Doctors and lawyers, haven’t gone very far on the show, so as Jamal progresses through the questions, suspicion and doubt are cast upon his integrity. With the show breaking for the next episode after the penultimate question, Jamal is taken into custody by the police, beaten and tortured to reveal exactly how he is cheating. But he’s not cheating, each question was fated to him (”It is written”) and his life experiences provide him the answers. He relates these stories to the police who become enraptured by his tale.
There’s three streams flowing through the film, all inter-cut: the present moment, where Jamal is relaying to his questioners his tale; the recent past, which is Jamal’s appearance on Millionaire; and finally the flashback, which tell Jamal’s tale from a cheeky 5-year-old to an orphaned, street urchin teenager, to his step-up in life as a call center gopher, and his undying devotion to his true love who comes and goes from his life, and his brother who gravitates towards darkness while Jamal heads towards light.
I knew of the film’s set-up before I went to see it and was excited to see how it would play out. While the film itself is enjoyable, I found it less interesting the more it went on. The early scenes, showing the religious conflicts in the streets, the poverty versus the upper class, the sheer grime of urban India was the most fascinating aspect. That there are people who live in such squalor, and so many of them is a potent realization, especially if you’re only familiar with India from Bollywood films or other American-made movies (Darjeeling Limited). The story comes right down to being a love story, whereas I would have been tremendously more satisfied with a film about a desperate young man clinging to hope of getting out of his wretched situation. The fact is, the money barely factors into it. Jamal hardly cares. It’s true to his character in a sense, but unrealistic given the overwhelming possibilities for him should he triumph.
Another facet I found disappointing that the film hits its climax with the police believing him and then shuttling him back to the show for him to answer the final question. My original impression was that he had already won, and that the inquisition, whether he was a cheat or a liar or lucky was the real meat, and that the victory for him would be proving himself, not actually winning the show.
Finally, the biggest aspect I found difficult to believe was that as each question in the show progressed, so too did his life. I would have found the film an unbelievably gripping story had each question yielded a vignette from random times in Jamal’s life and, unveiling a whole, albeit non-linear, story by the end. There is, however the cute juxtaposition that as the questions got harder, Jamal’s life got a little easier.
Altogether, not a bad movie. It’s an obvious crowd-pleaser but too predictable for my tastes.