It comes as a surprise to some people to discover that the Hollywood film industry is not the biggest in the world. Since 2004 Bollywood holds that title. Centered around Mumbai (Bombay), this film community produces more than 1,000 films a year, with worldwide ticket sales of over three billion. Hollywood, on the other hand, produces around 500 films a year, with a worldwide audience of 2.6 billion. This is where the comparisons that favor the subcontinent end, however. In terms of revenue and cultural influence, Hollywood seems almost unassailable.
Indian films are an acquired taste. Most Westerners have neither the background nor the patience to develop t heir palate for them. So what Bollywood has been searching for in recent years is a crossover film.
“Salaam Bombay” (1988), “Mississippi Masala” (1991), “Monsoon Wedding” (2001) and “Bend It Like Beckham” (2002) proved that there was a Western audience for an Indian story, albeit an expatriate one. But, made for $10 million and with a worldwide gross of nearly $100 million so far, “Slumdog Millionaire” is the film that mirrors best the voracious Western appetite for Indian literature. It helps, of course, that it has been nominated for and has won several prestigious international film awards, including 10 Oscar nominations. Referring to social welfare programs in a number of cities in India, the film’s producer, Christian Colson, said, “A portion of the box-office proceeds will be donated to the Slum Welfare.” Within the year I would like to know who has seen the loot and how much they received. And I hope the real slum dwellers were not just extras.
I was distinctly uncomfortable watching what is supposed to be a feel-good film. Why? First the story.
Set in Mumbai, India’s most populous city, “Slumdog Millionaire” offers insight into the complexity of modern India, with its simmering religious tensions and social inequities. It begins in a windowless room in a police station, or perhaps a military headquarters, where Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a slightly built 18-year-old slum dweller, is being slapped and tortured by waterboard by two men in uniform. The attack on Jamal that confronts the viewer is disorienting. Who are these men? What do they want to know? What is Jamal’s crime that he is being tortured in this way?
Jamal, it turns out, is one answer away from winning 20 million rupees (US $415,000) on India’s phenomenally popular television quiz show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” But neither the quiz show host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), who is responsible for Jamal’s arrest, nor the police inspector (Irrfan Kahn) who supervises the torture is prepared to believe that Jamal has won his money fairly. How could a lowly slumdog win millions of rupees without cheating?
The answer is contained in the film’s structure, in which each of the 12 multiple-choice questions answered correctly by Jamal becomes the occasion for a series of flashbacks that tell the story of Jamal’s short but extraordinary life and the key moments that have brought him to where he is now.
Jamal (played by three different actors at ages 7, 13 and 18) and his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) are Muslim street urchins who scavenge the mountainous rubbish dumps and steal in the streets to support their meager existence, finding joy in evading the police, who search the canals, markets and rooftops for them on mopeds and on foot.
The two brothers are very different. Jamal is openhearted and dreamy, not street-savvy like Salim, who subordinates his better self to the needs of survival. Sometimes they attend school. But when their mother is killed by religious fanatics who raid their shantytown, the boys are forced onto the streets to live by their wits. There Jamal befriends an orphaned girl, Latika (Freida Pinto), whom he cares for and later comes to love.
Like Dumas’s three musketeers, the children are one for all and all for one. But this is tested when they are inveigled into joining a predatory, Fagin-like gang of soulless thieves. Only Salim’s quick thinking saves them.
Salim becomes hardened by what he has seen, and he hungers for wealth and power. As they grow older, conflict and rivalry between the two brothers leads to betrayal, and Jamal becomes separated from both Latika and Salim. Like Orpheus searching for Eurydice, Jamal finds Latika only to lose her again, this time apparently forever. In defiance of fate—or perhaps in pursuit of it—Jamal tries his luck on India’s most watched television show, in search of a miracle.
In this adaptation to the screen, by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”), from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A, the cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (“Dogville,” “The Last King of Scotland”) plunges the viewer into a depiction of modern India that is stylistically novel. Mantle’s camera zooms in and out, creating mosaics of faces and places. But the emphasis is on the unfolding drama, moving backward and forward in time, grounded excitingly in cutting-edge photorealism, farce and fable.
This is Danny Boyle’s best film since “Trainspotting”; it marries the conventions of music video clips with the best of modern Indian cinema. During the end credits we even have the obligatory Indian dance sequence.
There are two major problems with “Slumdog Millionaire.” The first is the conceit of the story. I could never properly relax into a tale about a boy who can barely read moving through the rounds of a quiz show because almost every question plays into an experience out of his incredibly tragic past. I like my fantasy served straight up. And the narrative structure is too episodic, cutting between the torture scenes, the quiz show and Jamal’s life story.
While it is visually transfixing and often emotionally powerful, I found the film too busy. Some of the dialogue in English is not easy to understand, which matters in a crossover piece.
My most serious concern, however, is the way in which the deprivation in Jamal’s life is presented as entertainment. Elements within “Slumdog Millionaire” made me feel as I were watching “poverty pornography.” I use the term pornography here in its strictest sense. Derived from the Greek porni (prostitute) and graphein (to write), it originally referred to the description of a sex act with a prostitute. The word prostitution itself has come to mean the giving of one’s time and talent to a demeaning activity. Danny Boyle visually describes the tragedy of the Indian underclass, the rapaciousness of the Mumbai underworld and the brutality of the Indian police force without any moral voice stating how evil all this is within the story.
Boyle has been stung by such criticism. “‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is not a documentary,” explains Boyle, adding that it “should be seen as a film which salutes Mumbai’s breathtaking resilience, a city in which poverty is never seen as a curse and the poor hardly ever resent it.” Neither reason can justify the human tragedy we see on the screen, especially in a country whose economy has grown so dramatically in the last 20 years.
Social inequity and humiliating poverty should be a springboard for all countries to have a good, long, hard look at the world we have created, not something to which we dance along at the end.
Listen to a discussion of the best picture nominees for 2008.