Film Review: Slumdog Millionaire
Slumdog Millionaire (2008; Directed by Danny Boyle)
Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a lot of things, but above all it’s one of the liveliest films to become a critical darling in recent memory. Look at the other Best Picture nominees from the year it triumphed at the Oscars and you’ll find ponderous, staid Prestige Pictures of the type that the Academy can never seem to resist (with the arguable exception of Milk). As conventional as Slumdog is at the basic levels of narrative, character, and themes, its furious sun-baked energy and the Orientalist alterity of its setting makes it seem much less predictable and generic than it really is.
Slumdog Millionaire trades on the common narrative tropes of the “rags to raja” drama in undeniably obvious ways: overcoming obstacles, showing up naysayers, falling in forbidden love, and giving voice to youthful yearning. It owes roughly coequivalent debts to both pull-up-your-bootstraps crowd-pleasers like Rocky and vibrant quick-cut portrayals of the Third (Under)World like City of God. The look, sound, feel, and style of the film are its truest joy.
Boyle deserves credit, but his team of collaborators aid him greatly. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography drinks in India like a fine tea, all multichromatic clutter and bright, sweaty vivaciousness. Chris Dickens’ mastefully kinetic editing had to be an Oscar shoo-in. And A.R. Rahman snatched a pair of golden statuettes for his blood-pumping score, to say nothing of the pitch-perfect contributions from M.I.A. (the “Paper Planes”-scored train sequence trumps the Pineapple Express trailer for the aptest visual companion to Maya’s new modern classic track). The cinematic skill with which these elements are applied and the deep, abiding delight they continually produce overcomes every bit of the script’s generic predictability. The plot and characters are a mere skeleton for the lovely skin of this film, a hanger for Boyle’s robe of many colours that has a gutsy poetry all its own.
And anyway, Slumdog Millionaire is more a meta-commentary on the narrative conventions it is employing than a simple repetition of them. The genius of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy’s employment of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? as the main thread of the plot is located precisely in its superficial predictability. Millionaire‘s huge popularity is now a thing of the past in North America, but the kernel of its hit status was its simplicity, indeed its very contrivance: it is simultaneously entirely predictable, endlessly repeatable, and inherently dramatic and suspenseful.
In Slumdog Millionaire, it serves as a common touchstone, a paradigm of the endlessly repeatable and yet viscerally engaging game-show tension that all of the genre’s great success rely upon. Boyle and Beaufoy seem to recognize that a game show like Millionaire has shifted the axis of the rags-to-riches narrative in the popular consciousness; what’s so compelling about an inspiring story of working from nothing to everything in “real” life when it can be done on primetime television in the space of an hour? Beyond its jump-cut editing and globalized soundtrack, the dialogue between the film’s narrative conventions and those of the game show (which Jamal’s “destined” knowledge of the trivial answers and his unflappable approach to the format’s cliches upends, as when the boy turns the tables on Anil Kapoor’s slimy host by asking if he is nervous) is what truly makes it a post-modern meta-commentary on genre.
Despite misguided accusations of neo-colonialism and stereotyping in the film’s use of the Indian setting, this absorption and adaptation of Western culture is what makes Slumdog Millionaire such a prescient and timely film. It is not a film about India as much as it is a film about what the rise of India means to the world (read: the Western world), and how that rise incorporates Western culture and recasts it and views it through an Indian kaleidoscope. The presence of the Millionaire show at the heart of the film is a complex metaphor for this process, and it’s simply too bad that so many critics of the film seem to have missed it.