Hollywood paid homage to Bollywood in 2008, and Slumdog Millionaire was rewarded with the Oscar. From a production standpoint, it’s amazing that this film was even made. Director Danny Boyle had to take guerilla film making to a whole new level as much of the filming they did in India was done without permits or permission. The film was based on a book called Q & A by Vikas Swarup, and it follows the story of 18-year-old Jamal Malik, a kid who escaped Mumbai’s slums, as he gets to the final question of India’s version of the show Who Wants to be a Millionaire and is accused of cheating.
If ever there was a film about overcoming adversity, this is it. We watch Jamal from the time he’s a small boy having to swim through the foulest of the foul in order to obtain the autograph of Amitabh Bachchan, his favorite film star, which his older brother Salim will end up selling. We watch Malik overcome nearly impossible hardship to attain a better position in life. Through all of these experiences, Jamal learns about things that will ultimately help him answer the questions that could lead to his fortune or to his ultimate downfall because there’s no way that anyone would believe that someone of Jamal’s background could know everything that he claims to know.
One of the choices that Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy made was to use flashbacks prominently in the telling of this story. We open with Jamal being interrogated by a police inspector played by Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi), who doesn’t believe that Jamal could possibly know all of the answers without cheating. As Jamal relates the stories of how he knows all of these answers, we see the times in Jamal’s life where the answers were revealed to him, whether it was learning about Benjamin Franklin being on the front of an American $100 bill from a blinded child beggar he used to know, or seeing a vision of the god Rama after witnessing the death of his mother in the Bombay riots.
It is after that event that his life truly changes, for that is when he meets Latika. Jamal was still a young boy at that moment, and he and Salim had climbed aboard a freight train to escape the riots. As they fled the scene, they picked up Latika, a girl about the same age as Jamal, who wanted her to be their third musketeer, since they had been studying that book in school. Salim was hesitant, but Jamal convinced him to let her join in. Not long after that the kids are picked up by a gangster named Maman who trains kids to be beggars. Maman takes a liking to Salim, as Salim seems to be morally pliable. Maman makes the kids believe that he’s running a camp where he teaches the kids to sing, and Jamal brags to Latika that he’s going to be a famous singer one day. It’s Salim’s job to bring the kids to Maman when he’s ready to hear them sing, and he watches in horror as Maman’s assistant puts an ether soaked rag in the kid’s face and then put acid on his eyes because blind kids begging can fetch twice as much money. Maman then tells Salim to bring him Jamal, which he hesitantly does. But before the assistant can knock him out, Salim knocks the acid out of his hands and the kids make a run for it, hopping on a train at a nearby station. Latika has a hard time keeping up and Salim has her hand ready to pull her on, but he lets go, allowing her to be retrieved by Maman and his men.
The brothers then start scamming passengers on the train until they’re ultimately kicked off, but as luck would have it, they get kicked off near the Taj Mahal, and start stealing shoes and scamming tourists. After doing this for quite some time, Jamal receives a $100 bill and happens to bump into one of Maman’s blind boys who tells him the picture is of Benjamin Franklin and that Latika is still with Maman. He then warns him that Maman never forgets and that he’ll be singing at his funeral if he goes after him.
One of the questions that Jamal has to answer is, “Who invented the revolver?” He knows the answer is Colt because they use a Colt .45 to rescue Latika from Maman and Salim ends up shooting Maman so that they can escape. The kids get separated and Jamal can’t find the others. This leads Salim and Latika to get mixed up in the gang of Javed, the most notorious gangster in Mumbai, and Jamal gets a job at a local call center.
Now eighteen, Jamal uses the call center to try and find Salim and Latika. He’s able to find Salim, who is now a high-ranking lieutenant in Javed’s gang. What’s more, Latika is now his main girl, and is akin to a prisoner in Javed’s house. Jamal masquerades as a cook to get in to the house, and sees that Latika fills her days watching TV. He then tries to meet her at the train station to get her to escape with him, but Salim and other members of the gang rush up to her and drag her in to a car before cutting her face with a knife. Hoping to somehow make contact with Latika, Jamal gets on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
As Jamal makes his way working through the questions, he becomes the darling of the nation. This actually draws the ire of the show’s host, Prem Kumar, who at one point tries to feed Jamal the incorrect answer, but Jamal sees through his attempt and gives the correct one. In fact, it is actually Kumar who suspects Jamal of cheating and calls the police. I’ll not give any spoilers however as you’ll have to see the film to find out if Jamal wins the money and gets the girl.
What I will say is that I enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire, but I also felt that it came up short in a couple of places. First and foremost, I’ve always had a problem with Kumar feeling jealous and being upset by Jamal’s success on the show. Kumar clearly looks down on Jamal from the moment he comes on to the set, making fun of Jamal for working at a call center and disparaging Jamal’s background every chance he gets, if for no other reason than to get a cheap laugh from the audience. It seems to me that in a normal world, Kumar would be ecstatic to have Jamal doing well. A rags to riches story like this would turn in to a ratings bonanza, and make his show the number one show on television. It just doesn’t make any sense to me that he would proactively try to destroy Jamal while Jamal is bringing in a new wave of an audience for his show.
I would have felt better about this storyline if there had been more clarity in Kumar’s motivation. Jamal is a Muslim, so does Kumar have a prejudice against Muslims? There has always been tension between Hindus and Muslims in India, so it wouldn’t be out of the question if Kumar’s character had that type of prejudice. Is Kumar simply so insecure that he can’t have anyone else be responsible for the success of his show? If that’s the case, then again, it needed more clarity. Perhaps Kumar just hates poor people and people who come from the slums because he feels they reflect poorly on his country. Again, that’s a short-sighted attitude to have because this is the type of event that draws people in, and makes the show even more popular.
I’m generally not a fan of flashbacks, and this film uses that technique as a major motif to telling the story. The timeline jumps around quite a bit, and it’s hard for me to care about Jamal as he is in his current state because we’re spending so much time with his younger self, and those are essentially different characters. I had a similar feeling to when Geoffrey Rush won the Best Actor Oscar in 1996 over Ralph Feinnes, even though much of the screen time for Rush’s character was when he was a kid, and Rush was really only in half of the film. I felt a similar feeling with Slumdog Millionaire in that Older Jamal was only in half the film and I think I would have preferred a more linear style to the narrative so that we could have watched Jamal grow up and turn into the young man that he would become.
Otherwise, I think Slumdog Millionaire is a fine film. I wasn’t expecting to feel as emotional as I did at the end, and I think that speaks well of Boyle’s direction. We’ve been following this character since he was a young boy, and Boyle did an outstanding job of making it clear what Jamal wanted and what he needed, so that when the story is resolved, there is a clear and appropriate emotional response. Ultimately that’s all you ever really want from a film. You want it to be dramatic and you want that drama to build towards eliciting and emotional response. In that vein, Slumdog Millionaire was a successful film.
There were some other controversies regarding the film, like its depiction of life in India, as well as what happened to the Indian child actors after the production wrapped. Fortunately the latter situation worked out well as they were initially paid a pittance for their work and sent back to the slums. This caused some backlash and in response trusts were set up for those kids’ educations, and they’re now attending universities and making the most of their opportunities. In terms of the film’s depiction on India, I think it’s important to realize that India is a large country, and no film is going to be able to accurately depict what the entire culture is going to mean to all of the people that live there. Plus, India is so huge and has such a vast and multi-cultured population that no one film could accurately depict all things for all people. Just like any American film that you see that takes place in Los Angeles or New York or Boston or Chicago, Slumdog Millionaire shows a slice of what living in India is like. Is it all good? Of course not. You need bad things to happen in order to create the necessary drama that tells the story. Slumdog Millionaire is not a story about India. It’s a story that takes place in India.
Did the Academy get it right?
I am of the opinion that they did, but 2008 was not a particularly strong year. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was a dramatic and interesting piece about a man who aged backwards. I thought it was a decent film, but it was very long and very depressing. Even though Slumdog Millionaire has a fairly depressing tone to it, there is a lot more of a feel-good vibe in crucial moments. I enjoyed Frost/Nixon very much primarily as a character piece that was comparing and contrasting interviewer David Frost as the playboy, fun-loving celebrity in search of real credibility and respect against Richard Nixon as the disgraced, though not humbled, former president looking for redemption. I thought that those two issues playing against each other created some great drama and a story that was at times intense, even though it was primarily two guys talking to each other. Milk was another very good film that was about social change and the man who was its primary catalyst. It showed Harvey Milk as a flawed hero who wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers to get what he wanted and he turned out to be the first real champion for gay rights. Finally there was The Reader, which was really two films in one. The first half was a love story dealing with a love that should have been forbidden between a coming-of age teenager and a woman in her 30’s, but was practically life-saving for each person in the relationship. The second half opened up a skeleton-filled closet that took the story in a completely different direction and ended up turning it into a type of court room drama. It was a very good and very compelling film. All of these films were excellent, but I wouldn’t consider any of them to be particularly great. If I had a vote in 2008, I probably would have voted for either Milk or The Reader. However, I don’t necessarily think that either of those films were head and shoulders above Slumdog Millionaire. While I probably wouldn’t have voted for Slumdog Millionaire, I can certainly see why people did and why people loved it. I can’t really complain about it winning Best Picture.