Great motion pictures are often harder to review than bad ones. It’s not, as Brad Bird’s Ratatouille (2007) suggests, that critics thrive on negativity, though I should point out readers seem to love the stuff. Rather, it’s that genuinely inspiring films tend to be particularly easy to spoil. At least that’s how I feel about Slumdog Millionaire. There’s so much I want to write about Danny Boyle’s stirring Indian love story, about what I felt, learnt, and unlearnt in that dark theatre room, but then I’d rather you discover the movie for yourself.
Here’s what I feel comfortable telling you. The film is based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup and officially stars Dev Patel as Jamal, a street orphan from Mumbai who somehow becomes a contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I use the term “officially” because the role is also shared by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Chheda, who play the character in his younger days and, as far as I can tell, share equal screen time. The story begins with a multiple-choice question:
“Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it?
A. He cheated.
B. He’s lucky.
C. He’s a genius.
D. It is written.”
The game show’s smarmy host (Anil Kapoor) believes the correct option is “A. He cheated”, final answer, so the police interrogate Jamal in what strikes me, and I realize I’m perhaps being naïve, as an excessively brutal manner. Their suspicion is based solely on preconceptions regarding social class, and we suspect at least one of the officers would rather just kill the contemptible slumdog and be done with it. Through a series of flashbacks, we gradually learn how the latter is able to make it this far on the program: most answers, it turns out, are tied to specific landmarks in his tumultuous youth, allowing the movie to take us through a decade-long tale of survival.
At the heart of this journey is Jamal’s complex relationship with his older brother Salim, first played by Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, followed by Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala and then Madhur Mittal. The two siblings love each other dearly, but they can never see eye to eye. As children, they compete for a famous Bollywood actor’s autograph. The youngest is a devoted fan. The eldest wants to make a profit. Consider how each achieves his goal. Jamal and Salim repeat this pattern throughout their lives as they adapt to homelessness, con their way across India, and ultimately choose their respective paths.
Mind you, Slumdog Millionaire wouldn’t be much of a romance without a beautiful love interest. Jamal meets her the same day he and his brother are orphaned because of their Muslim heritage. In accordance with the genre, the girl eventually causes a schism between the siblings, though not in the way you might expect. As bold and resourceful as the Malik boys, Latika is adorable as a child (Rubiana Ali), soulful as a teenager (Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar), and absolutely gorgeous as an adult (Freida Pinto). My only qualm is that the movie treats her more like an ideal, a purpose on which to focus the hero’s unwavering spirit, than a full-rounded character.
With the lead roles split between so many young actors, it’s a good thing the cast comprises talented unknowns willing to share the screen. There are no big names in Slumdog Millionaire, and every performance is all the more convincing for it. The true star of the motion picture is India itself, more specifically the city of Mumbai. I’ve never seen it portrayed quite like this before, the dreamlike splendour of its historical landscapes intertwined with the modern austerity of its slums. Some shots seem straight out of a documentary. Others would be more at home in a music video. The film is sort of like life in that respect.
In fact, Slumdog Millionaire feels so authentic in its depiction of India that many have claimed it to be in the Bollywood tradition. I heartily disagree. Sure, there’s an elaborate dance number during the end credits, but Danny Boyle’s romance doesn’t quite capture the lavish exuberance of Mumbai’s musical melodramas. This is a different kind of fairy tale, one rooted in an uncompromising reality. Besides, the final shot of the movie (excluding the dance sequence) breaks a cardinal Bollywood rule. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the scene except to say it’s a lovely moment and I’m happy it made the cut.
I suspect I might have revealed too much with that last comment. If I were reviewing a lesser film, I might not have cared so much, but Slumdog Millionaire is an exhilarating experience. The motion picture is at once startling, joyous, heartrending, enlightening, romantic, unflinching, and uplifting. It would be presumptuous of me to say it’s everything for which we go to the movies, since, according to box office numbers, some people just want poop jokes and lots of swearing, but, in my humble opinion, it’s everything for which we should go to the movies.