Slumdog Millionaire

Ayush Mahesh Khedekar in 'Slumdog Millionaire'

Ayush Mahesh Khedekar in 'Slumdog Millionaire'

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.

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7 thoughts on “Slumdog Millionaire

  1. I find myself a bit baffled by the general adoration for this film — I saw a preview before Christmas, and came away thinking it does what it does well enough (technically creative, you’re right), but that what it does isn’t that special. Watching it at the time, I didn’t feel impressed that it tentatively doubts/questions itself; that seems, in a way, the least that could be asked of it.

    I also found myself curiously fascinated by the host’s pronunciation of “millionaire”. That’s probably just me, though.

  2. I think when you say that doubting itself is the least that could be asked of it, you’re ignoring all those many films that, well, don’t. What ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ does, I think, is catch a number of balls at once. This makes it admittedly less dextrous with any one ball than another film, but at the same time it exceeds any previous attempt to do the same sort of thing (in that it, well, catches the balls).

    I agree that it’s not omgthebestfilmever (and surely not the best drama of the year, Hollywood Foreign Press Association), but I’m not sure that ‘does what it does well enough’ is not, in this case, all that it needed to do. A bit like the kid who coasts and still gets Bs, except less annoying.

  3. Hang on, since when are you the one who defends things by saying, well, at least everything else is worse? :-p

    I’m not sure it does catch all its balls. I was very struck by Mark Kermode’s insistence on it as a fable; you’re saying something related here, that the absurdity of the premise is acceptable as “a way into India”. Does it really give us a way in, or is presenting India as a place where something this extraordinary could actually happen (as, implicitly, a place where it’s easier to believe in this sort of fable) diminish it? I realise the story comes from a well-regarded novel by an Indian author, but it seems a rather glib approach.

  4. This is a film which is framed by the phrase ‘It is written’ – this is an explicitly artificial story. I’m not sure that the film at all assumes this sort of thing could happen – certainly that’s not what I was going for with the ‘way into India’ comment.

    I accept wholeheartedly the view that this is a fairly simple movie, but I’m not sure it’s simplistic. Rather, it doesn’t diminish India so much as it doesn’t set out to try to explore it totally (a la McDonald). What I think it does try to do is tell a simple story which sketches out the country’s internal contradictions whilst exploring its potential and mysticism. In that sense, it’s nicely cheeky to base these on so dully familiar a thing as an episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

    Which is to say I don’t think Slumdog Millionaire needs defending – it clearly, as you say, does what it does pretty well, and this is no basis for an attack. Here is a film which has attempted to tell an Easternish tale with a Westernish technique to a mainstream audience, and succeeded in a way which has not quite been achieved before. (Which is, admittedly, a way vaguely above average.)

    That’s an argument which could be characterised as ‘hey, at least everything else is worse’. But it’s also a bit more than that – ‘hey, it tried to do it, and for the most part it did it’. Year’s best picture? No. Interesting bit of entertainment? Absolutely.

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