The feelgood film has a bad rap. The sneaking suspicion will always exist, as the audience floats out of the theatre all aglow, that to make us feel good at some point a film has to lie. This is beating around the bush; all films lie. Perhaps better to say that feelgood movies instead gloss: what leads the heart to soar is the absence of a sinking feeling, the eliminating of the complicating factor.
In narrative theory, the real story starts with the complicating action. Feelgood films stop a story’s motion at a point without one, fulfilling the basic demands of the form without admitting what everyone knows: in real life, stories don’t stop. There’s always a complicating factor around the corner.
In this way, ‘Slumdog Millionaire‘ should have won its Best Picture Golden Globe in the comedy or musical category – classically, comedies stop the story when all is happy, when the boy wins the girl. Is the film also drama, though? Certainly, and Boyle navigates the sterility of the happy ending by twinning it with tragedy (using the tight definition of the destruction of a character as a result of his or her own inherent flaws, no less). ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ does not ignore the suffering and pain of life in the Mumbai slums; it sanitises life by making it sexier than it really is, perhaps, but few films don’t.
This sexiness is undeniably part of the fabric of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Boyle directs his film with technical virtuosity, tugging the audience along with a clear thread, but mixing up angles at every juncture. It is a marvel that this complex, creative film was made for the relative pittance of $5 million. The story’s conceit, that a contestant on the Hindi version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire by chance knows the answer to every question he is asked as a result of direct personal experience, is too preposterous to bear scrutiny – but such far-fetched concepts are the stuff of literature both of and about India (Forster’s boum, Rushdie’s midnight bong). They represent a way into the bewildering, and just as improbable, panoply of experience which in a country of a billion people daily jostles against the boundaries of the usual.
There’s nothing new about a film with a happy ending featuring awful things to get there (last year’s ‘The Kite Runner‘ was harrowing in parts and disconcertingly confident of its own happiness at the end); but Boyle performs a cannier trick. Though we are happy for Jamal because we have also shared his losses, simultaneously we are sad for others and conscious that the millions he wins are scraps of paper as corrosive as they are coveted. Time and again the film underlines the dirtiness of money – a bit rich (no pun intended, honest), since, for many of the inhabitants of Mumbai’s slums, their misery builds from their poverty – but, at the same time, an unsentimental approach absolutely crucial to a story which does not patronise its subjects. ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is not a film which uses a white character to make a passionate argument against the slums, or in favour of the ‘slumdogs’; things are as they are (that is, hard and often short), but joy can be found amidst the deprivation. Money is not worthless, then – but it has no spritiual worth. This seems an honest enough position which respects rather than looks down upon the film’s subjects.
So there is a welcome ambivalence at the core of the film’s conceit; there is concern at the edges of its comedy; and there is, principally, an affection – a love – for the bustling, developing, difficult country in which it sets itself. Every moment in the film is punctuated by a question mark: there are amusing jokes at the expense of Indian call centres, and disquieting levels of class snobbery against them. There are improbable scenes of a boy covered in excrement securing the autograph of the most famous man in India, and scenes of an interrogation involving beatings and electrocution (which are in addition brave enough to include some darkly humourous banter between the interrogator and his subordinate). There is drama in this comedy, and farce amongst its tragedy. Crucially, the acting holds this tension together throughout – the cast is uniformly excellent, perhaps especially so its younger members.
There is perhaps an element of Western adventurism in the film: the use of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire drives the exotica of the movie: in contrast so familiar, now hackneyed, gameshow, Boyle can get away with something slightly less than local colour to convince us we are watching a very foreign culture. The curious choice to use English (admittedly, the youngest actors speak Hindi, and this takes up around 30% of the film) is a concession to a British/American audience which eschews the film’s obvious desire to treat India on its own terms. Nevertheless, it still seems fair to conclude that this is a film trying to tell a story, and, in the same way that its premise strains credulity without that really mattering, its sops to accessibility rest more on telling that story widely than they do on any lack of awareness. The decision to depict Jamal as a Muslim, rather than use the tripartite Everyman name from the source novel, Q&A (Ram Mohammed Thomas), surely shows enough courage to be getting on with, and its refusal to pander to Western audiences in other respects (the aforementioned lack of a Western POV character, the absence of background exposition) also speak to the film’s responsible approach.
In his superlative science fiction novel of India, ‘River of Gods‘, Ian McDonald could encapsulate India only via a multi-strand, multi-character narrative which at first seemed disparate but eventually coalesced. In ‘Slumdog Millionare’, Boyle’s focus is admittedly narrow and traditional, his protagonist the quintessential underdog of the mode. But in this quietly questioning film, he manages to make both a feelgood movie and an intelligent one, merely by doubting his own story. All films lie – some just do it better than others.