Film Reviews

Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle

Rating - 5/10

English director Danny Boyle is one of contemporary cinema’s most eclectic craftsmen. His filmography has touched such disparate genres as the psychological thriller (The Beach), zombie horror (28 Days Later), children’s cinema (Millions), sci-fi (Sunshine) and the drug-addled dark comedy-drama (Trainspotting). Boyle's latest effort Slumdog Millionaire, takes the fifty-two year old director to the slums of Mumbai for a neo-Dickensian fairytale centered around a teenage orphan's rags-to-riches story.

Based on Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A and adapted for the screen by Full Monty screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire is a crass, romantic underdog story. The film’s location is the Indian city of Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay), the epicentre of India’s current economic ascension and the site of a series of high profile terrorist attacks, which occurred prior to the film’s release. In our modern globalized world, Mumbai has come to represent India’s postcolonial hardships and economic transformation in its mixture of opulent high-rises and garbage-strewn slums.

This frenzied environment provides the backdrop for Boyle’s tale of young slumdog Jamal’s (Dev Patel) journey from poverty to prosperity. The film opens with Jamal being interrogated and tortured by two police officers. The officers want answers. But Jamal is neither a terrorist, nor a criminal. Rather his crime is related to accusations that this uneducated chai-wallah (tea boy) from the Mumbai slums cheated his way through the previous night’s programming of India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

In order to prove his innocence, Jamal is forced to explain precisely how he knew the correct responses to each of the questions asked of him the previous night. Thus, the film begins to engage in a series of flashbacks designed to demonstrate how Jamal came to know the answer to each question. Jamal soon explains that each answer relates to an episode in his life. For example, when Jamal is asked to recall how he knew Benjamin Franklin’s face resides on the American hundred dollar bill, the ex-slum kid explains he once gave the aforementioned bill to a blind child beggar, who on accepting the money asked Jamal whose face was on the currency note in order to confirm its authencity.

Through these flashbacks, other segments of Jamal’s life are revealed: his orphaned status, the Cain and Abel-like relationship between Jamal and his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), his encounters with a Fagin-like pimp and his undying love for beautiful fellow orphan Latika (Freida Pinto). Problematically, the overall effect hinges on the audience’s acceptance of the coincidental nature of Jamal’s life in relation to his answers on the show. Slumdog Millionaire is not aided by the flimsy, superficial nature of Boyle’s connections.

As with many of Boyle’s films, the first half is far more consistent in its construction and application, than the film’s second half. While the former in Slumdog Millionaire lightly evokes the poverty, survival tactics and antics of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! or de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, the latter descends into a trite, postcolonial love story at odds with the film’s earlier craft, humor and guile. In its later stages, the sugary slickness of Slumdog Millionaire turns the film into a postcolonial episode of The OC with its romantic tensions, overuse of M.I.A’s fantastic “Paper Planes” single and clichéd visit to the Taj Mahal.

The claustrophobic, neon visuals supplied by Dogme cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle add a further sense of gaudiness to Boyle’s frenetic interpretation of slum life. Although Boyle smartly captures the dichotomy between the tin-roofed shantytowns and the mammoth skyscrapers dotting the cityscape of modern Mumbai, his heart-warming narrative scarcely investigates the role of race, skin color and religion in Indian society, even though his central protagonist is a Muslim.

Nor does Boyle truly imbue a sense of the lingering emotional and psychological effects of the horrors of slum life on his children-cum-adult characters. Instead his stylish, circumstantial film acts as a thematic metaphor for karmic destiny. This overarching theme subsequently reneges on any insightful or meaningful inquiry into the cycle of poverty. Fate defines Jamal’s experiences and ultimately Boyle eschews realism for glossy fantasy.

In doing so, Slumdog Millionaire’s exotic escapism becomes even more trivial. Evading the true nature of Jamal’s experiences, Boyle’s glib response is to link his protagonist’s exodus from poverty through the cosmology of fate. In the process, Slumdog Millionaire feels more emotionally coercive than Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!. Whereas Mira Nair expressed the inadequate outlets for impoverished children to escape India’s urban ghettos, Boyle leaps toward the triviality of a Western television game show.

Perhaps Boyle’s overly long conclusions are hopelessly romantic. But one wonders how a director from a Third World country would have handled this material. Would he or she have come to the same formulaic conclusions, or exploited the film’s backdrop in such a clichéd and prosaic manner? Probably not. In Boyle’s hands, Slumdog Millionaire becomes an emotionally fraudulent tapestry, featuring blankly sketched characters and an overstretched, thin plot, which negates the social implications of poverty and the effects of globalization on a developing nation. The end product is at times shamelessly manipulative in its heavyhanded junctures and overtly colorful depictions of urban poverty.

A major disappointment.