Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire

****

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Although the films of Danny Boyle have travelled far afield in generic terms, from the thrills of Shallow Grave (1995) to the zombie horror of 28 Days Later (2002) to the cosmic science fiction of Sunshine (2007), the director's latest feature represents his first foray into the Indian subcontinent – not that he fails to mark this new terrain with his own distinctive stamp. Adapted by Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup's novel Q & A, it has been retitled Slumdog Millionaire apparently to evoke Boyle's previous Millions (2004), while an early scene in which the hero is shown diving into an unimaginably foul toilet recalls a key moment from the filmmaker's most celebrated film, Trainspotting (1996). Still, this national love story is, like all Boyle's films, something of a departure from its predecessors.

One question away from winning the top prize of 20 million rupees on India's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is interrogated by a police inspector (Irfan Khan), who suspects this 18-year-old boy from the Mumbai slums must have cheated his way to such success. Jamal's lengthy explanation of how he knew each of the answers and why he came to be on the show is also the story of his life - a Dickensian tale as sprawling and vibrant as Mumbai itself, where tragedy sits alongside romance and rags lead to riches.

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Slumdog Millionaire is an unabashed crowdpleaser, flashing its populist credentials from its Who Wants To Be A Millionaire frame right through to its Bollywood-style song-and-dance finale. The plot, too, is essentially melodramatic froth, with the orphaned Jamal (played variously by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Hemant Chheda and Patel) being three times separated from his beloved Latika (Rubiana Ali, Tanvi Gunesh Lonkar and Freida Pinto) thanks to the treacherous interventions of his older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala and Madhur Mittal). Yet the film finds ways to set the saccharine artifices of its plot against more bitter truths, including the Hindu-Muslim riots, the horrific exploitation of children in the begging 'profession', Mumbai's criminal underworld, and police brutality.

After all, the narrative may be an effusive, almost cheesy romance, but it finds room along the way for the unflinching depiction of massacres, torture, vicious disfigurements and cold-blooded murder – as though no amount of contrivance can conceal the harsh realities faced by India's underclass.

The expression "it is written" is used as a refrain to describe Jamal's implausibly ascendant destiny – but the film never quite allows us to forget those left behind, whose lives have been less cosily scripted. As a boy, Jamal may narrowly escape having his eyes scooped out with a spoon by his exploitative handler (blind beggars, you see, make more money), but later he runs into a less fortunate acquaintance, who reminds him (and us): "You got saved, my friend. I wasn't so lucky. That's the only difference." It is the sort of downbeat detail that prevents Slumdog Millionaire from disappearing entirely into feel-good sentiment, and that may well continue to haunt the viewer long after Jamal's own upwardly mobile trajectory has been forgotten.

Like the European tourists whom Jamal and Salim, posing as guides at the Taj Mahal, regale with tall tales, we may feel somewhat bamboozled by the beguilingly colourful ride this film takes us on, with its exuberant camerawork and broadstrokes characterisation – but there is also a more real, altogether less salubrious Indian history on offer here for those who have eyes to see.

Reviewed on: 16 Dec 2008
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Tale of love and longing across the decades, seen through a streetkid growing up in India.
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Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Vikas Swarup

Starring: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Irfan Khan, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Rubiana Ali, Tanay Hemant Chheda, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Tanvi Gunesh Lonkar, Saurabh Shukla, Mahesh Manjrekar

Year: 2008

Runtime: 120 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, US

Festivals:

London 2008

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