I saw Slumdog Millionaire before it won all its BAFTAs last night but didn’t get round to reviewing it, so this is probably the best time to share my thoughts.
Slumdog Millionaire is NOT the ‘feel-good film of the decade’ – you should know that before seeing this film (even if you have seen the poster above everywhere). It looks at the lives of people living in the slums of Mumbai and the hardships they endure that will make you wonder how they survive. The reality of the situations are definitely not feel-good – it is only because the lead characters have suffered so much that the happy ending is so positive (and narratively deserving) because of the horrible events we have witnessed. The ending has to be happy otherwise you’d want to slit your wrists over the unending misery.
The film starts with the police torturing a young man, Jamal (Dev Patel), who is under arrest for alleged cheating on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. When the torture has no affect, the police officer in charge starts to ask him questions about how he knew the answers to the questions on the show – Jamal reveals how he happened to the specific answers due to previous incidents in his life. Starting from the first question, we go through each in sequence and the events in Jamal’s life. From his life in the slums, his mother’s death, his time at an ‘orphanage’, and his run-ins with gangsters (due to his brother joining their ranks), Jamal tells his story and the focus of his perseverance – his affection for a girl called Latika (played as an adult by beautiful newcomer Freida Pinto).
The important thing to remember is that this film is a fable – it is not meant to be real. The contrivance of the coincidence that has Jamal able to answer the questions is the stuff of fairy tales. However, the purity of Jamal and his love for Latika means that we have something to hold on during the film. The awful parts of his life are balanced by the humour in the gameshow segments, meaning that you are not constantly subjected to two hours of misery. The film also uses the tension of the gameshow to heighten the drama – the makers, Celador, are part of the production team responsible for the film, so the film can use the real sets and music rather than a pretend version. Simon Beaufoy’s script makes everything believable, all the characters, the horrors and the joys.
Danny Boyle has done a magnificent job as director; from Trainspotting through to Sunshine, he has never done a bad job and here he shows his skill with a range of different styles, settings and characters (including three different ages for Jamal, Latika and Jamal’s brother). There is even a throwback to Trainspotting‘s opening scene of Renton running down the high street to the sounds of Lust For Life in a scene where the two brothers are escaping a mob that are attacking the slumdogs. To be able to flash forward and backward in the characters’ lives, handle the horrific nature of life in the slums (like the blinding of an orphan because blind singers make more money) and turn to the focussed intensity of the television scenes, it is a wonderful accomplishment (especially in another country of such a different nature to his own) and he deserves the award for best director from the DGA.
Slumdog Millionaire is an excellent film that you will to have a happy ending because you believe in the characters and nobility of the human spirit; but remember: it is not the feel-good film of the decade. You will enjoy the film all the more if you watch it with this in mind. After all, the ending is given away by the title of the film itself. It is also just a very good film, rather than a classic for the ages, but that’s quite an accomplishment in itself.