The great debate: Slumdog Millionaire


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Could there ever really be something overwhelmingly and universally enjoyable about a film that shamelessly smears its own promotional posters with the declaration of its being “the feel-good film of the decade”?

Surely you should never trust a film whose adjective of choice is actually a command. And yet in Slumdog Millionaire we have a film that truly follows through on this promise.

Undoubtedly it’s not plain sailing from start to finish. At the film’s opening, Jamal Malik, a street child from the slums of Juhu, is one question away from 20 million rupees on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The film continues through flashbacks to pivotal moments of Jamal’s life as he tries to explain to a police interrogator, suspicious of his success on the show, how he came to know the answers to all of the questions so far.

The narrative is disjointed and sporadic; it’s a perfect example of a book that shouldn’t have worked as a film, but did, and the shift to screenplay is more or less flawless.

This transition to the screen is aided by the film’s phenomenal cinematography. The sweeping shots of Bombay, Mumbai and the Indian hinterland are breathtaking on the big screen, while the exceptional soundtrack (led by that M.I.A song) only adds to the experience.

As for the cast: all three of the young actors that play the protagonist throughout the various points of his life embody the tenacity and conviction of a textbook underdog. The supporting cast are equally strong, particularly Madhur Mittal and Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala who both play Jamal’s brother Salim, the more cynical and realistic counterpoint to Jamal’s idealism. It is simply a beautifully-crafted and painstakingly put-together piece of cinema.

In some ways Slumdog exploits every cliché in the book. It’s a “rags-to-riches” tale about “one boy’s journey” from the slums of Bombay to the glitz of the small-screen, as “he discovers what is truly valuable in life”.

And yet, in spite of all this, it is an engaging, thought-provoking and stimulating film. “Feel-good”, the posters told me, and goddamnit, feel good I did.

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At the beginning of Slumdog Millionaire, protagonist Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. And how has the hero got to this position? Luck, fraud, genius? Or is it “written?”

The film, an adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A, is in no doubt as to the answer: it is Jamal’s destiny to prove that a slumdog can actually know a thing or two.

And yet the frequent allusions to destiny or fate fail to obscure the fact that Jamal’s destiny is actually the product of a series of carefully plotted contrivances.

The audience is required to suspend disbelief long enough for Jamal to successfully answer question after question to reach the final round. Of course, none of this would be inherently problematic were it not that the tone of the film often feels wildly uneven, with director Danny Boyle seeming to fuse together the brutal realism of Trainspotting with the feel-good sensibility of Millions.

The film, scripted by Simon Beaufoy, appears to evoke Dickens at every turn. We have Jamal as the picaresque hero in the mould of Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, while nineteenth-century London morphs into the sprawling mass of Mumbai.

Appropriately, there are Dickensian villains at every turn. Almost every adult character is suitably wicked, from the police who torture Jamal to the Fagin-esque Maman who, in what surely must be the film’s most harrowing scene, blinds orphans.

All of this sits uneasily alongside the film’s more playful moments and Jamal’s ultimate triumph.

Slumdog defiantly declares its pretensions as a parable throughout, but a moral lesson seems conspicuous by its absence.

As a film which is content to work on the level of fiction, it too often sidesteps the troubling backdrop against which Jamal’s tale is played out. And as a film with a quiz at its centre, surely Slumdog should be posing a few more difficult questions to its audience.