Photo above by Humayunn N A Peerzaada
At the core of Slumdog Millionaire is the question: Have our lives already been written before us, or do we ultimately influence our destiny? The answers to the question unfold against a vibrant and colorful, but often raw geographical and human landscape in which India is as much a character as the protagonist, Jamal.
At last week’s Golden Globes, director Danny Boyle (whose past work includes The Beach , a polarizing film amongst travelers), picked up the best drama and best director awards for his tale of Indian slum dweller Jamal Malik, who finds himself one question away from winning the TV quiz show, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”
But before possibly walking away with the prize money, the nation’s hearts, and even the love of his life, Jamal has to endure torture at the hands of Mumbai’s brutal police, who believe he cheated at the game. The suspicious inspector asks, “How could a slumdog know the answers to those questions?”
The answer: Destiny.
“I knew I’d find you in the end. It’s our destiny.”
Under interrogation, Jamal tells the inspector his incredible life story. None of the young boy’s experiences from childhood to this moment, sitting handcuffed in a chair, are of his own doing. In fact, all Jamal ever did was simply survive as life propelled him from one life threatening or life affirming experience to the next. As we come to realise, though, there was greater meaning to it all.
Underlying the story of Jamal’s life are questions that affect us all: Are our lives really mapped out for us? Does everything happen for a reason? Surely our lives aren’t pre-determined; we shape them through our decisions. Choice, not chance…right?
These are questions with particular resonance for travelers, who know that the momentary decision to go one way or the other will change one’s journey– and even one’s life–and nothing is likely to be the same again. We can’t leave such meaningful decisions to the heavens; we’re in control. Or are we?
A Nation of Apparent Contradictions
You’ll ponder these questions throughout Jamal’s story, but the real subtext of this film is India. Danny Boyle’s visceral film-making drops you right into the streets. Filming hand-held, guerrilla style, on location, Boyle conveys the the beauty and extremes of India–from dilapidated Mumbai shantytowns and endless garbage-strewn landfills to exhilarating train journeys and colorful mass riverside laundrettes– in an intimate way.
‘You don’t take [Mumbai] for granted, ” Boyle said in an interview promoting the film. “You know nothing about how it assaults your senses. For a dynamic film-maker like myself, it’s everything I could ever want.”
That “everything” includes characters. By setting Jamal and his narrative among the country’s lowlifes, degenerates, innocents, and angels, Boyle ensures that Jamal’s experiences shock and inspire viewers in equal measure.
“I think one of the reasons the film seems to work for people is that it is very extreme,” Boyle said. “That’s what they have there. You’ve got to portray it as an extreme experience. Everything is full-on.”
“It’s a tough place! There’s a lot of poor people living there leading very tough lives. You’ve got portray that accurately. There are beggars who have been crippled deliberately to make them better beggars. You’ve got to get your head around that.”
“You get it rougher in India at the moment,” concluded Boyle, Empire. “….[I]t allows you to tell a story like this.”
Beyond raising questions of destiny and beautifully portraying Mumbai’s darker side, “Slumdog Millionaire” is also likely to help travelers reflect on their own experiences of India.
I so rarely get the chance to write this: here's a film that reminds me of Max Bygraves's 1970s chart classic, The Deck of Cards. This heartwarming monologue (originally recorded in the 40s) narrates the story of a humble soldier, hauled out of a church parade by a furious sergeant for playing cards. Before his disgusted commanding officer can send him to the glasshouse, this poor semi-literate squaddie explains that for him, the deck of cards is his Bible: the Ace is the one true God, the two is the Two Testaments, the three the Holy Trinity - and so on until the gruff CO, like Bygraves's entire listening public, is reduced to a quivering tearful jelly at this simple soldier's dignity and piety.
Something very similar happens in this wildly silly but perfectly watchable melodrama, adapted by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy from the 2005 novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup and directed by Danny Boyle. Despite being overpraised - it arrives garlanded with the kind of reviews that must have come out after the opening night of King Lear - this is still very effective entertainment.
The movie is about the Indian version of the hit TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Dev Patel plays Jamal Malik, a former Mumbai street-kid who has a job making tea at a call centre. He astonishes all of India by entering the show as a contestant and triumphantly getting question after question right. Is he a fraud? A savant genius? Or is something weird going on? His amazing winning streak means he has to come back the next evening for the final big-money question and overnight he is brutally interrogated by Mumbai cops convinced he is a cheat. They take him through each of the questions he got right, and Jamal's life story unfolds in flashback as our hero reveals that each question, like each of Max Bygraves's cards, has a special significance. His tale involves crime, drama, knockabout comedy and romance. Various characters determine his fate: his gangster brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), the love of his life Latika (Freida Pinto) and Prem (Anil Kapoor), the creepy quizmaster himself, who has his own interest in Jamal's staggering success.
This movie has interesting antecedents. It is not the first to be made about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Patrice Leconte's 2006 film My Best Friend, starring Daniel Auteuil, features a nailbiting edition of the French version of Millionaire. Leconte's film, like Boyle's, culminates with a "phone a friend" showstopper and both cheekily suggest the show is transmitted live, when, in real life, it is of course recorded and edited well in advance, at least partly to weed out the cheats.
I have some knowledge of all this, incidentally. I was once the "friend" telephoned by a contestant on the show but at the crucial moment, my mobile phone was, shamingly, out of range. Chris Tarrant's face was reportedly a picture of polite bemusement as my voicemail message echoed pointlessly around the studio, before being smartly cut off and the contestant was permitted to phone another "friend". Naturally, hiccups like that don't make it on to air.
Slumdog Millionaire is co-produced by Celador Films, owners of the rights to the original TV show, and so it functions as a feature-length product placement for the programme, whose apotheosis here came when would-be cheat Major Charles Ingram tried to scam the quiz in 2001. All he got was a suspended sentence, a fine and minor celebrity status, and the show got mouthwatering publicity. In this film, poor Jamal is, simply on suspicion of wrongdoing, beaten to a pulp by the police and horribly tortured with electrodes - the nastiest interrogation scene I've watched for a while. But afterwards he makes it into the studio as fresh as a daisy. What the Mumbai police make of their unflattering portrayal, I can't imagine.
Despite the extravagant drama and some demonstrations of the savagery meted out to India's street children, this is a cheerfully undemanding and unreflective film with a vision of India that, if not touristy exactly, is certainly an outsider's view; it depends for its full enjoyment on not being taken too seriously.
Interestingly, the co-creator of Millionaire, Steven Knight, is himself a screenwriter who has scripted far more serious films than this: Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things (also co-produced by Celador) and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. Slumdog Millionaire really is gentle compared with, say, Robert Redford's satire Quiz Show and softcore compared with Danny Boyle's famous movies, Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. In fact, it's more of a kids' yarn, like his wacky caper Millions.
Well, for all this, it's got punch and narrative pizzazz: a strong, clear, instantly graspable storyline that doesn't encumber itself with character complexity, and the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is tremendous. It's definitely got that quirky-underdog twinkle and the silverware glint of awards can't be far away.