“When asked a question, I give the answer.” This is Jamal Malik’s simple response to the police inspector’s question in Slumdog Millionaire concerning his amazing success on a TV game show. Jamal’s straightforward remark makes sense to those who believe that modern society is a meritocracy in which truth always triumphs, but it doesn’t wash with the police inspector. The real world today, the inspector knows, especially the world in India, is dominated not by truth and skill, but by lies, corruption, brute power, and the maintenance of social barriers. Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandam, presents a simple fable, cleverly told, about the contrast between our idealistic dreams of a just society and the more sordid reality in which we live. Though it features a number of dazzling production techniques that contribute to its success, it also leaves me wondering about some missed opportunities. An undeniably entertaining experience could have been something more.
Certainly the film’s manner of presentation and production values are seductive. Although a British production, the film has the appearance and flavour of being at least an Indian co-production, and it is this cross-cultural admixture that works so well. In fact, we could say the film’s style is effectively a combination of three stylistic elements: high-intensity cinematic drama à la Danny Boyle, Bollywood romance, and MTV. One would normally expect that any attempt to mix these elements together would results in a confused mish-mash, so the creative triumph that resulted comes as something of a surprise.
The clever narrative trick in Slumdog Millionaire, derived from Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q and A, is to use the TV game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” as a vehicle for an examination of Indian society. It tells the story of an eighteen-year-old boy from the Mumbai slums and with no formal education who was lucky enough to be chosen as a contestant for the show. Astoundingly, he has given a string of correct answers to the questions posed, and at the outset of the movie he is about to face the final question the could earn him 20 million rupees. Since an uneducated slum dweller is presumed to be incapable of such success, Jamal has been circumstantially accused of cheating and has been hauled before the police and tortured in order make him confess his crime. Jamal proceeds to recount various episodes from his past, which are presented as extended flashbacks, in which he just happened to pick up the information crucial to answering each of the questions he has been asked. Each flashback, however, also provides us with a glimpse into the cruel machinations of various sectors and prejudices of Indian society that oppress the poor. These include ruthless beggar masters who intentionally capture and maim children in order to produce effective beggars, underworld gangsters, and police who are indifferent to the bigoted oppression of religious minorities (in this case of Moslems beaten and killed by Hindu fanatics). Note that the order of questions asked on the show just happen to correspond to flashbacks occurring in the chronological sequence of Jamal’s past. Such an artificial chronological coincidence can perhaps be forgiven on the part of the writers (Simon Beaufoy scripted the film from Vikas Swarup’s novel), since it conveniently aligns the two main narratives, Jamal’s quiz-show narrative in the present, and his flashback-told experiences of the past.
Not so long ago India, a country and people that I love and admire, was a nation primarily of upper classes and lower classes, with only a very small middle class. But now India has a vibrant and rapidly growing middle class that is one the largest in the world. Despite this dramatic transformation, however, anyone who has spent some time in India can see that the country still has, as do many other parts of the world, monumental problems of (a) an enormous portion of the population that is utterly destitute and (b) a woefully inadequate infrastructure. Basic essential amenities, such as clean water and adequate sewage, are not available to huge numbers of people that are still living in squalor. Unfortunately, a good many prideful Indians with feelings of insecurity about their national image don’t want to hear about this and often bristle when presented with moving depictions of Indian poverty, such as Pather Panchali (1955) and Salaam Bombay (1988), and they condemn them all as “poverty porn”. But there is no escaping the reality of this situation, and it is important that an open society not suppress the presentation of these issues. This is what makes Slumdog Millionaire something of a breakthrough. Here we have a popular movie made in the Bollywood style which situates its romantic fable directly in the middle of the Mumbai hutments. Since the film has mass entertainment appeal, this fascinating mixture of Bollywood and serious drama will likely draw a large audience and may have a uniquely beneficial social impact. Unfortunately, though, about halfway through the film, the story wanders away from the social issues and settles on a romantic love story in typical “destiny-driven” Bollywood style. As a consequence it more or less loses sight of its earlier social themes. To be sure, the romantic story is well told and uplifting, and the audience leaves the theatre on an upbeat note, but the haunting themes of the first half of the film are drowned out in the clamour of individual triumph.
Now one might conjecture that this kind of fantasy could have been presented as a sly vehicle to expose the cruel absurdity of the real world. A sardonic example of this sort was Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (Dona Flor e Seus Dois Maridos, 1976), an absurdly comic story about a woman who manages to find marriage contentment by combining two contrasting husbands (one of whom is a ghost). The satirical twist in that film was the contrast between the loony culmination of the film and the limited marital options available for many women in macho-dominated societies. Satisfaction, the film seems to suggest, may only be possible in a ridiculous world of fantasy. Along similar lines, Slumdog Millionaire could have played that card and suggested that only in the impossibly remote circumstances of unbelievable luck could someone from the hutments achieve his dream. But the film doesn’t adopt that line and make such a cynical suggestion. Instead, it seems simply to settle for the typical Bollywood fantasy of uniting lovers who are destined for each other, without the social overtones that could have elevated the film to greatness.
The cinematography in Slumdog Millionaire combines Bollywood lushness with rhythmic music and fast cutting – all heavily dosed with in-your-face closeups. It’s a jarring, pulsating visual world that will appeal to a TV-oriented crowd, but there are not many shots evoking contemplative reflection on the proceedings. In addition, the camera angles come from all directions, thereby lessening the potential intimacy of the subjective perspective. We are watching Jamal from every possible angle, as external observers, but that technique reduces our identification with his personal point of view. This all-angles cinematography is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville, who typically created a visual milieu in which his characters were inserted and observed as if they were part of his bleak, noirish landscape. Nevertheless, in Slumdog Millionaire, there are so many closeups of actors Dev Patel and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (who play older Jamal in the present and the younger Jamal in flashback, respectively) that the viewer can identify with Jamal and champion his cause.
There were a couple of thematic elements inserted in Slumdog Millionaire that I found particularly appealing:
- Jamal and his brother Salim were Moslems, an underappreciated community in India. Furthermore, though it is not explicitly evident to which ethnic group Jamal’s love interest, Latika, belonged, I believe the name “Latika” is of Hindu origin. That would suggest that Jamal, a Moslem, was in love with a Hindu, which would represent the kind of cross-cultural pairing that I think is healthy to see in a film. (Even better for the cross-cultural mix, the role of Latika is played by the beautiful Frieda Pinto, who is a Christian.)
- The closing scene of the narrative ends with the two lovers kissing, a specific shot that is conventionally avoided in Indian cinema, even though Bollywood films frequently have subject matter that is implicitly much more adult oriented. So it is especially satisfying to see this film close with an explicit romantic embrace.