WFTB Score: 19/20
The plot: Chai wallah Jamal, a survivor of Mumbai’s overflowing slums, finds himself on a famous quiz show and, miraculously, one question away from the big prize. The show’s makers are convinced he is cheating, but in interview Jamal reveals that the events that have shaped his life have provided him with the answers he needs; to the questions he answers for money, and more importantly to those concerning his relationships with his brother Salim and lifelong sweetheart Latika.
With a single, elegant device, Slumdog Millionaire – based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup* – takes an alien world and presents it in a form that can be easily and universally understood. That world is Bombay/Mumbai, and the device is the ubiquitous quiz show Who wants to be a Millionaire? As we follow the progress of lowly call centre tea-maker Jamal Malik through the rounds of questions, the viewer is able to appreciate that Jamal is both incredibly lucky and horribly badly treated.
The story unfolds across two timeframes: in the first, the adult Jamal (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning 20 million rupees (less than half a million pounds, euros, or dollars, incidentally, but still a fortune in India), but Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), the mocking presenter of the show, is sure that Jamal is a cheat, and turns him over to the brutal police who attempt to beat a confession out of him.
During the course of the interview, the tape of the show is replayed and as Jamal explains himself, the second timeframe opens up. Beginning with Jamal and his brother Salim as young ‘slumdogs,’ we see them as youngsters playing cricket on the airport runway, working as toilet attendants and fleeing from an attack against Muslims which sees their mother murdered and the boys left to fend for themselves, Jamal taking pity on fellow outcast Latika.
The three are ‘rescued’ by an orphanage, but this turns out to be nothing more than a front for a corrupt gangster called Maman (Ankur Vikal) who maims boys so they can beg more effectively and grooms girls for prostitution. Tough guy Salim, saving Jamal from his fate, effectively seals his own even though both boys escape. Latika is left behind, and it is Jamal’s quest to find her again that drives him throughout the film, as the boys fleece tourists around the Taj Mahal before coming back to Mumbai.
Where the story then goes (the police slowly come round to accepting Jamal’s story, Prem feeds Jamal an incorrect answer, Latika and Salim both become involved with a gangster boss) is perhaps not a surprise, given the film’s insistence on destiny; however, the ease and confidence with which Danny Boyle (together with co-director Loveleen Tandan) tells the story is nothing short of superb: since we have seen the ordeals that these characters have survived in their short lives, we really hope that they will triumph, and Boyle (thanks to screenwriter Simon Beaufoy) achieves a perfect balance of ups and downs, of humour and tragedy.
The love story is ostensibly the key to the film, and this is played very nicely by Patel and Freida Pinto (as the adult Latika); but the real centre of the film is in the love-hate relationship between Jamal and Salim. Jamal is the thinker, the boy with emotion and enterprise; whereas Salim is from the outset the aggressor, the action man torn between advancing his own interests and protecting his little brother. Their respective destinies are often gut-wrenching but entirely believable, enhanced by some wonderful acting, most notably from the three youngest incarnations of Jamal, Salim and Latika – respectively Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubiana Ali.
Even more than these, the real star of Slumdog Millionaire is Mumbai itself, a troubled city riven with poverty, corruption, gangs and racial tension which evolves as quickly as the film’s characters. Thanks to some colourful and striking cinematography, the city is memorable even at its most squalid (the pull-back shot of the slums, or the young children climbing over the tips), and as technology and new building starts to take over, the slumdogs have to adapt. In the new city, money talks, and Jamal’s careless attitude to it lies in stark contrast to that of his brother. There have been complaints about Mumbai being exploited and the set-up as a whole being far-fetched, but there is little justification for the first accusation, and personally I find the drama of the film to be realistic and ultimately satisfying, especially since the Bollywood dance emphasises the fact that this is, after all, just a film.
This review is written on the day of the 2009 Oscars and as yet I don’t know if Slumdog Millionaire has won Best Picture**. All I can say is that for the other nominated films to be more deserving than Danny Boyle’s masterpiece, they will have to combine a look, a sound, a story and some beautifully natural performances with a spirit that says that although life can be cruel and unfair, the will to survive will win in the end. A simple message, possibly, but an uplifting one all the same.
NOTES: 1Having read the book since writing this review, I should add ‘rather loosely’. 2That seemed to go alright, didn’t it? I’ve not seen Slumdog a second time and my gut tells me that I may have been carried away with the emotion of the film when scoring. Still, I wouldn’t dream of changing the score without watching the movie again.