To those Indians especially conscious of their country’s image abroad, the recent feting of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire at the Golden Globes, followed by its ten Oscar nominations, must seem like a welcome reprieve from the highly embarrassing and damaging Satyam scandal. Many Indians are embracing Slumdog as their own, with Bollywood maestro A R Rahman bagging best original score at the Golden Globes, and its Indian cast gaining much praise. Yet along with the pride there is an undercurrent of unease, sometimes bordering on hysteria, at the film’s depiction of the Bombay slums – eclipsing, according to some, the feel-good attraction of the movie. Yet, it is these slums themselves, with their kaleidoscopic layers, their dense humanity and tantalising danger, which hold a special attraction for viewers. Like the more notorious favelas of Brazil, India’s slums have that titillating allure for tourists – of both the armchair variety (through novels such as Shantaram) and of the more conventional kind, with tour packages available for trips through the shantytowns.
Much like the auteur Wes Anderson in his recent film Darjeeling Limited, Boyle has discovered in India a palatable canvas for an already realised aesthetic. The big difference, though, is that Boyle has the decency to feature an Indian cast in the lead, while also generally avoiding casting India as the protean mould for the European imagination. The film does feature the wide-eyed awe of the outsider, but it is a vision that strives for the real deal. With cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who had worked on many previous Boyle projects behind the camera, Slumdog has a lush, vibrant feel that has become Mantle’s signature. The handheld camerawork lends a throbbing energy that is matched by the film’s slick editing. A novice to Bombay, Boyle insists on what some have seen as a foolhardy authenticity, shooting in the very slums in which his story is set.
The storytelling, in cinematic terms, seems to borrow from another critics’ darling of yesteryear: Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1994), where a seemingly guileless charmer slowly thaws and persuades his hard-bitten interrogator of his innocence. Slumdog Millionaire, based on Q and A, a novel by author and Indian diplomat Vikas Swaroop, opens with the clever juxtaposition of protagonist Jamal Malik being put to the question – that European euphemism for legal torture stemming from the Medieval Age – his tired body subjected to interrogation, against scenes of the bombastic set of the trivia show “Kaun banega Crorepati” (referred to in the film as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”). It is a juxtaposition that is perfectly aligned, featuring scenarios in which Jamal’s agency has been removed, as he is subject to the machinations of an impersonal system that is not only outside his control but that holds him in little esteem. At the police station, after his underling fails to extract much other than his name, the police inspector (played by Irrfan Khan) takes his turn, glowering and suspicious as he has Jamal explain how exactly a ‘slumdog’ could know enough to get so far on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”. Thereafter unfolds Jamal’s story of his life in the slums.
The retelling has Jamal shuffling back to his past, requiring the talents of a small army of child actors to depict him, his brother Salim and Latika, a fellow refugee from a communal riot who becomes Jamal’s enduring love interest. The young actors shine, with their expressive faces, uninhibited acting and dialogue delivered in their native tongue all coming across as thoroughly convincing. In contrast, the adult characters are burdened with an English script (Dev Patel in the lead at times makes for a very unconvincing uneducated slumdog, with his English including a hint of British inflection). The brothers Jamal and Salim are opposites, the former idealistic and principled, the latter bitter and ambitious. Unwilling to submit to the humiliation of poverty, Salim chooses a path that leads him into a life of crime. Theirs is a relationship marked by deep love but also ambivalence, as the elder Salim both resents and is envious of his brother’s irrepressible ethics and his stubborn attachment to Latika. Understated as it is, and overshadowed by the bigger draw of romance, it is this relationship that provides the film’s dramatic life. Boyle manages to draw real insight and pathos from the duality of their intertwined destiny and rivalry.
Slumdog Millionaire’s fairytale flavour has less to do with Bollywood allusions – as if Bollywood has any aversion to tragedy – than with a decidedly Dickensian tone. Here is a boy being exploited throughout his young life, only to end in a circumstance of unbelievable good fortune and wealth. And yet, while Dickens’s novels often leave the reader with the permanence of the well-deserved happy ending, Danny Boyle’s movies do not. What the director trades in is the power of hope. Indeed, the retelling of Jamal’s life is a litany of awfulness: literally covered in shit at one point, electrocuted and tortured at the behest of his social betters, witnessing the horrors of communal violence, child mutilation and coerced prostitution. With such a track record, there is nothing to indicate that things are ever going to improve. But Boyle’s movies are often not about happy endings, but rather about survival – the tenacious grip on life, on hope, on love. It is that insistence on holding on to faith, that dogged belief in the possibility of happiness and love in the face of unrelenting cynicism and derision, that provides Slumdog Millionaire with its fairytale quality.
Anil Kapoor’s delicious portrayal of Prem Kumar as the slick, snarky host of the television show is emblematic not only of the cynicism and derision that is heaped on Jamal, but also of the divide between the two classes. Here is where the film hits a nerve: adulatory as it is of the spirit of perseverance of India’s poor, the film shrewdly notes the insurmountable divide between Bombay’s haves and have-nots. That there is no fantasy of a rags-to-riches story, of a slumdog creating gold though opportunity and hard work, is a tacit acknowledgement that India’s uneven economic growth does not mask the country’s poverty, or the lack of access to power for its many citizens.
Boyle usually keeps his movies at a clipping pace, more akin to Hollywood. Even in his underappreciated Sunshine, a kind of philosophical horror movie, Boyle did not allow the heavy ideas and issue he trades in to get in the way of his desire to tell an engaging story. And Slumdog Millionaire is no exception. With A R Rahman’s pounding soundtrack propelling the slickly cut chapters, the film is always entertaining. With much of Hollywood pulling down its shutters on independent production houses, and India’s non-mainstream efforts remaining outside the purview of much of the public, Slumdog reaffirms the power and viability of independent cinema. The fact that the Big B seemed to take offence to Slumdog Millionaire’s depiction of India on his blog (though he has since denied doing so), feeling compelled to defend “the commercial escapist world of Indian Cinema”, says something of the fear of breaking formula. On this point, this reviewer would like to take a line from Charles Dickens and be the first to plead, “Please, sir! May I have some more?”