Here, on the eve of its Academy Award shoot-out with Benjamin Button, I feel I ought to put down my thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire the, if you will, Oscar underdog.
The first thing that is worth noting is that the ad campaigns which have touted this as “the feel-good film of the year” are shamelessly failing to prepare you for the shocking cruelty and tragedy you will see in the film’s first half. If you walk in expecting this to be another Millions (2004), you're in for a steep learning-curve but, by the same token, if you go in expecting something as stark and edgy as Trainspotting (1996) you, again, will be surprised because Slumdog Millionaire manages to bridge the apparent chasm between both those films. It isn't scared of staring into the abyss of human weakness, like Trainspotting did but, like Millions, it also never loses its faith in the tenacity and raw humanity of children.
In typical style, director Danny Boyle doesn’t make things easy for himself as he weaves together no fewer than three narrative strands, cutting backwards and forwards between them in a way that could, in lazier hands, be very confusing.
The three stories are: The childhood of our hero, Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar / Tanay Chheda), an infant scavenging on the mountainous rubbish tips of the city then known as Bombay. Fast forward about fifteen years to modern-day Mumbai and the second strand, where we have the grown Jamal (Dev Patel) sitting in the hot-seat in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. The third strand then takes place during the night after the Millionaire recording, where Jamal is being tortured by the police because they think he has somehow cheated on the show.
The way these three threads are drawn together, informing and supporting each other throughout the film, making a ferociously complex structure clear, dramatic and deeply moving, is an admirable example of good construction, a job of work achieved initially by Simon Beaufoy’s unflinching script and then by Boyle and his editor, Chris Dickens, who has rightly been nominated for one of the film's Oscars.
The game-show is the key to this structure as every question Jamal is asked sparks off a memory flashback to a key incident in his life, which tells us his story and tells him the answer. This framing technique really is a thing of beauty and lifts this film far above the mere travelogue/life story the film could have been. In my (not especially) humble opinion, it is, like the editing, entirely worthy of the Oscar nomination it received and, if Beaufoy doesn’t take the statue home, he can consider himself robbed!
I can’t sing the praises of the script highly enough, but I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll move on.
The flashback scenes show us a life that we, in The West, cannot easily (or willingly) imagine existing in our modern world. If this film does nothing else, it shines a light into the dark and ignored corners of the world that we, in our own comfortable, privileged little corner, prefer not to think about but, rather than dogmatically pounding us about the head with the injustice of it all, Boyle’s style and pace gives these scenes a vibrancy and aesthetic which is almost ecstatic. Saturated in turmeric yellows and cayenne reds, Slumdog is very (one suspects, deliberately) reminiscent of Cidade de Deus / City of God (2002), since that film deals with a very similar world of corrugated shacks, rank squalor and casual brutality.
The performances of the children in these heart-breaking early scenes are a revelation. One is lost in awe of them and fear for them as we see their big, trusting eyes looking out at a world where they are completely alone and where a human life has no value whatsoever. Quite how Boyle managed to get such consistent and convincing acting from pre-school children, who don’t speak English (when he, presumably, doesn’t speak Hindi), is just one of the many secret treasures buried in this film. In fairly short-order, we see these children orphaned, then gathered up by the Fagin-like crime-lords who operate gangs of beggars. But, far from the avuncular image we may have in our minds of Ron Moody or, now, Rowan Atkinson, these loathsome parasites deliberately maim the children, because this elicits greater sympathy from the tourists, and therefore more money.
Jamal and his brother, Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail / Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala), make their escape, unscathed, and begin fending for themselves, surviving on their considerable wits. In this, the film also reminds me of the harrowing anime Hotaru no Haka / Grave of the Fireflies (1988) but, here, the children’s stoicism in the face of unremitting brutality stops the film from tipping over into maudlin sentimentality or high tragedy. One wonders if this would be the case if an American director had made it.
At one point, after we’ve been lulled into a deceptive sense of security by watching the boys, now about ten or twelve years old and fluent in English, enjoying themselves by harmlessly hoodwinking the cow-eyed American tourists flocking round the Taj Mahal; Jamal is caught by an Indian taxi-driver and savagely beaten in front of the tourists. Picking himself up, he wipes the blood from his face, turns to the Americans and informs them: “You wanted to see the real India, well, here it is!”
These early scenes very much reflect the way that a lot of Western eyes (and all Western films that I can think of) see India, as a vast, incomprehensible and frightening beast; but, as the boys travel from infanthood through their teens to eventual adulthood, so the film travels in style and content from this out-dated Westernised image to a more contemporary, better-informed, more Eastern perspective.
This is where the casting of Anil Kapoor as the game-show question-master, Prem Kumar, is a master-stroke. His performance will be seen very differently by the two audiences this film will attract – the Western and the Eastern. For us in The West we see him as merely an increasingly arrogant, sarcastic and conniving egotist, but for those familiar with his Bollywood work, this performance will be all the braver and more powerful, rich with the echoes of Amitabh Bachach, Kapoor’s Bollywood contemporary, who used to host the real Indian Millionaire show, Kaun Banega Crorepati and who is referred to early on in the film in the notorious toilet scene.
He and the show he hosts and the vision of Mumbai it represents, demonstrate how far India has come even in Jamal’s short life-time. As an adult, he works in a call centre and, in one significant moment, he stands with his brother, dozens of floors up in an unfinished sky-scraper, looking down at the other buildings rising from the land which had, a few short years before, been the rubbish-tip of their birth. As the country has crawled out of The Dark Ages into the light and prosperity of Modernity, so the innocence of Jamal and Salim falls away, but not the love that runs just beneath the surface of this film, finally to break through in these latter scenes.
The transformation from Western perspective to Eastern continues, with the film adopting more and more Bollywood motifs. As the colour palette shifts from the warm rural colours to colder urban greys and blues – and white – the film becomes a love-conquers-all tale, where the brothers war over the heart and soul of the girl, Latika (Rubiana Ali / Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar / Freida Pinto), who had stolen Jamal’s heart when he was too young to know he even had one. Mix in some obvious Gangster Movie tropes, involving Salim transforming into a Tony Montana clone, and you have all the ingredients you need for a traditional Indian melodrama.
These latter scenes, shot through with the miasma of textures, colours and perspectives that we have come to expect from Boyle and his Cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, are designed, I feel, to show Hollywood, that it doesn’t own the copyright on the big, universal themes like love, loyalty and trust which drive we poor, fragile human beings, even in moments of extremis.
The conclusion of Slumdog is pure schmaltz, with an explosion of joy, movement and music that finally, stamps the Bollywood hallmark on the film so you can emerge from the cinema and back into your life with a grin and a skip in your step and only, after, will the memories of those eye-opening early scenes leak through, serving to make the joyous achievement of the film’s dénouement all the more emotional, and all the more impressive.
So, composure regained, do I think this film will win the ten Oscars for which it has been nominated? The short answer is … no. I don't think it'll get the Best Film award, or Doyle the Best Director because, as I mentioned earlier, Slumdog Millionaire eschews sentimentality until the very end, also because it is set in an almost completely alien world and, ultimately, because it has no big name (American) stars. I think Slumdog should and will win some significant statues for its craft and technical virtuosity but, if it comes down to a straight decision between this film and the no-less impressive Benjamin Button, I suspect the latter will win the big categories because it is a more conventional, more American tale, and history suggests that American Academy members favour American stories.
Still, as I type this, I'll know for sure in about twenty-four hours.
If Slumdog does lose the big statues to Benjamin, I feel this would still be an honourable result. I am convinced that Slumdog will take home the less-prestigious-but-no-less-important behind-the-scenes awards and that would, I feel, be the best of both worlds: East and West.
And so, as the slumdog immigrant workers in their high-vis jackets are pushing brooms down the wrinkled, heel-scuffed red carpets and the millionaires are heading-home after the high-vis parties in the hotels and night-clubs all across town ... The 81st Academy Awards are now about twelve hours in the past and, it turns out, I was wrong. I underestimated the Academy members. This wasn't a protective, patriotic Awards at all. I confess I'm surprised that Benjamin Button ONLY won for its make-up and effects (and art direction) ... But not as surprised as I am that Mickey Rourke won't be taking a statue back home to his Chihuahuas. Just goes to show ... even after twenty-five years of watching Oscars, I still can't tell which way things'll go. Sometimes the Should Wins and the Will Wins are the same thing ... and that's when cinema wins!
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor
Dur: 120 mins
image © Celador Films / Film Four