Directors: Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
By Roderick Heath
I remember when I thought Danny Boyle was a talent to watch. His terrific one-two punch, Shallow Grave (1994) and Trainspotting (1995), were grotty, intense, biting black comedies that ransacked the smugness of Thatcher-and-after Britain’s bourgeois and hipster cultures with equal abandon. Boyle’s filmmaking was a series of tricks that didn’t always work, but remained grounded and purposeful. I soon came to the conclusion, however, that Boyle had no actual artistic centre or sense of narrative gravity: subsequent films like A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach, and 28 Days Later, were clumsily assembled, laden with sophistry, and overedited in a feeble attempt to seem oh so cool, with no feel for storytelling or depth in character. In short, Boyle became a fair paragon of the modern flash-über-alles filmmaker. Finally, the excruciating pretentiousness and visual gibberish of Sunshine made me decide Boyle was a flash in the pan. And then came the Oscar-laden triumph of Slumdog Millionaire. Gasp! Was I wrong? Had Boyle found his mojo again?
No. Slumdog Millionaire’s hyped-up, stylistic bravura is technically impressive, aided by all the technical whiz-bangery of contemporary filmmaking, from floor-shaking sound effects to lightning edits, but it’s also painfully derivative of Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002) in its style of shooting urban poverty, and crusted with more visual gibberish, like ultra-close-ups of feet running and sundry other shots serve only to try to batter the consciousness into submission. What lies beneath all the effort of Slumdog Millionaire? A pile of clichés and gimmicks to rival Mt. Everest. Even the final dance number, an overt tribute to Bollywood, is a shoddy, under-choreographed disappointment.
Slumdog Millionaire has a wraparound frame that is quite clever, after a fashion. Jamal Malik (played, as a grown-up, by Dev Patel) is a “chai-wallah” (tea-boy and general dogsbody) in a Mumbai call centre. He gets onto the Indian edition of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which is hosted by Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), a self-impressed rags-to-riches media mogul. Kumar mocks Jamal for the audiences benefit, beginning what is the film’s break-glass-in-case-of-emergency method of developing sympathy: delivering endless humiliations and abuse entirely for that end. The time-hopping structure drags us forward first to Jamal being tortured by the police for allegedly cheating on the show during the one-night break between episodes when he’s waiting for the last question (that’s odd—at least on Aussie TV—which would have extended the episode).
Because he’s a “slumdog,” a child of the streets, no one believes that Jamal could have gotten as far as he did when well-educated people never do. The cops decide to lay off giving him shocks with a car battery and listen to his story, in which he explains, question by question (allowing for flashbacks in perfect chronological order), how he learnt the answers. His tale is revealed: Jamal and brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) were orphaned after Jamal’s mother, a Muslim, was killed in a religious riot. Surviving on their own, they were joined by another orphan, a girl named Latika, as a “third musketeer,” as per the book they started, but did not finish, reading in school: the running gag, and of course, the final question, involves the name of the third musketeer, which Jamal never learnt.
The trio survived various Dickensian dangers, like evil gangster, Maman (Ankur Vikal) who liked to burn kids’ eyes out with acid because blind singers make the most money. The boys escaped, but Latika was left behind. The lads rode trains and finished up in New Delhi, where, for a time, they guided tourists about the Taj Mahal. As teenagers, they returned to Mumbai so Jamal could look for Latika. When he found she was still being kept by Maman, who was preparing to sell her virginity, he and Salim tried to snatch her away. When Maman walked in on their rescue effort, Salim shot Maman, an act that placed him in good stead with the biggest gangster in town. Salim, flush with booze and macho triumph, chased Jamal away and claimed Latika for himself.
That’s a plot arc at least as old as Angels with Dirty Faces: the dynamic duo of the slums, one of whom goes good and the other of whom goes bad, a girl who is a mutual object of desire optional. Slumdog is raw, unleavened melodrama; Salman Rushdie’s description of Vikas Swarup’s source novel as a potboiler is pretty damn accurate of the film. Characters are laid out in single dimensions, altered on whim when the filmmakers want to further their manipulation—particularly with Salim’s violent changes in character, but also with the police inspector interviewing Jamal and the slimy host Kumar (Irrfan Khan), who proves to be villainous for no particular reason other than to give Jamal yet another hurdle. The heroes are no more well drawn. Jamal is plucky, quick-witted, doe-eyed. Latika grows to become a prisoner-princess in the walled castle of a boss gangster, from which Jamal wants to spring her. When she does venture out to meet Jamal, Salim and other thugs swiftly descend to snatch her up, and cut her face as a punishment. Despite sporting this mark, the ganglord still keeps her as a member of his personal harem. Both she and Jamal are remarkably well-scrubbed, pretty, and psychologically healthy despite all the shit they go through.
The appeal of his familiar stuff may simply be that it’s been grafted onto a location relatively fresh to Western audiences. We’ll swallow these horse pills of cornball if they’re coated in sufficiently wretched and violent a gloss to leaven the fantasy. One sequence, where the young Jamal has to escape from a toilet where he’s been mischievously locked by Salim if he wants a chance to get his favourite movie star’s autograph, requires him to leap into the cesspit—a straight riff on Trainspotting’s “worst toilet in Scotland.” Slumdog plays on both an audience’s love of seeing suffering children win through and middle-class guilt on the level of “My god! Those goons I can’t understand when I’m trying to complain about my phone service are people, too!” The film takes care to not blame the tourists who drift through the landscape: in a scene that makes no sense, one couple listens to Jamal’s bullshit history of the Taj Mahal; another pair pays him off “like real Americans” and save him from a beating. There’s no political dimension to the film: there’s poor people, rich people, villains, and nice folk. Questions of post-Imperialism and globalisation are elided through jokes, like Jamal’s calamitous effort to man a call centre post with a woman from Scotland.
All these faults might have been forgiven, but Slumdog, rather than striking me as an authentic Capra-esque fantasy, is just a compendium of canards to several brands of contemporary moviemaking: Tarantino/Tykwer-ish freaks of fate and pop-culture associations; Meirelles-esque kaleidoscopic editing and multimedia shooting styles; plot tropes and narrative gimmicks stolen from any Hollywood feel-good flick you care to mention; shallow Bollywood referencing. In the finale, when Latika’s racing to reach the TV station (isn’t that the sort of cliché that’s already been relentlessly mutilated by satirists?) whilst Salim lies in wait to shoot their owner, sitting in a bathtub filled with money, a touch that’s absurd and purely for photogenic value. For all its patina of gritty realism, Slumdog is pop moviemaking.
MIA’s “Paper Planes,” which features on the soundtrack, is becoming the new age anthem for the spirit of the post-Bush international Left—a cheeky song that uses sound effects to tell the tale of a poor immigrant who occasionally feels like shooting people and stealing their money. Slumdog, however, never actually gives Jamal any of the nobility of contemplated rebellion. He never fights back, takes every beating, lets Salim chase him off, and needs his best friend to sacrifice his own life to save the day.
Which leads me to the most irritating, and most central, conceit of the film: Jamal’s victory is entirely coincidental. All the answers have come to him through accidents and chances, not through any actual effort to learn and improve himself. The narrative is littered with plot holes and incoherent leaps. When Jamal and Salim arrive in New Delhi, they’re both suddenly speaking perfect English. Later, Jamal is working in the call centre, bright and well-scrubbed and concealing his lacks—how and why he got this boost-up rather than not ending up as a garbage man is not explained. The point, that Jamal is more intelligent than most people despite being a “slumdog,” is undermined by the final fact that he’s just infinitely lucky.
That the bright, fast, giddy, and empty Slumdog can be grasped onto as a work of important filmmaking is an indicator of how emotionally bankrupt contemporary film culture is.