Director: Danny Boyle ; Stars: Dev Pattel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal ; RunningTime: 120 minutes ; Certificate: 15
Slumdog Millionaire begins with Jamal Malik (Pattel) poised to win the maximum possible sum of money on the Indian Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Due to an underprivileged background he is accused of cheating and interrogated by the authorities. We are then told how Jamal has reached this point through heart-breaking flashbacks of a story of love, loyalty and hardship and how these events have led him to the answers he has given in the game show. He must convince the police that he is playing honestly before he can attempt the final question and win the money and everything else he is playing for.
Danny Boyle’s latest film is a fairytale set in modern Mumbai and features all of the conventions one might expect from such a genre, but they succeed in feeling both challengingly fresh and comfortably familiar thanks to the immense charm and heart of the film. The story is straightforward, but the jigsaw storytelling serves to make a well-trodden tale interesting to watch and lends the film true style and originality. It is a great credit to writer Simon Beaufoy and director Danny Boyle. So many parts of the film are unique and touching that I couldn’t help but be completely won over by it. The story could be described as predictable, but it is deliberately and joyously so. This joy is derived from watching the familiar fairytale unfold, but for well-realised and likeable characters in a more relatable time period. The characters themselves are archetypal; the unwilling hero, the protective big brother, the damsel in distress, but all of them fit perfectly within the fantastical setting. The abject poverty from which Jamal comes is alien to most of us but Slumdog Millionaire manages to illustrate the hardships faced by those living in these conditions powerfully and honestly without ever sacrificing the tone or focus of the story and without adopting a preachy demeanour. It explores the horror of the conditions themselves as well as those carried out by members of the community. We are shown an example of religious violence in an equally honest way but it is woven so completely into the story that despite its impact on screen the film never loses its flow or excellent pacing. It also presents a perfect marriage of the close personal story of Jamal, Latika and Salim with a huge adventure story. The film maintains a consistent and well-judged sense of scale throughout, letting us know how big everything is and how far everyone has come but without dissociating us from the characters. Slumdog Millionaire has come under some fire for glamorising this aspect of Indian life, but I never felt it did. It was honest, thought-provoking and unassuming and it certainly never portrayed the lifestyle as desirable. In fact, some of the images and emotions in the film are very tough and the film is accurately rated as a 15, and viewers should be warned that it isn’t quite the “feel-good hit of the year” as is being advertised. Despite this, the film has moments of wonderful comedy and warmth, sometimes derived from the small respite the characters find in spite of the arduous conditions.
The film deals with themes beyond simply existing in poverty. It explores the power of love, in the romantic sense through Jamal and Latika and its power to overcome any obstacle, but also the love and loyalty between Jamal and his brother, Salim. It illustrates that however battered this bond becomes, it is never broken. It looks at how our lives have defining moments by showing the different paths Jamal and Salim follow in life despite remaining bound together for the early part of their lives. It also explores aspects of arrogance, abuse of power, criminality and others within its two hour running time but never feels overloaded. It’s these secondary themes as well as the tough, but thrilling situations our heroes find themselves in that make the film so gripping, but without ever feeling generic. It has an odd collision of styles which fit together perfectly and is exemplified by an amazing little epilogue. As we approach the end of them film everyone’s storylines tie up in appropriate fashion and all of the emotion is portrayed without shame. My only complaint would be that there’s a very obvious visual metaphor towards the end which just seemed a little forced to be but it’s a small niggle compared with everything else the film accomplishes.
The performances are brilliant, particularly for such a young cast. I thought Madhur Mittal really stood out as the adult Salim, despite having very limited acting experience. The child cast is enthralling, adorable and heart-breaking and much of the credit for this is probably due to the Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan. It’s very much an ensemble piece and it all comes together without ever breaking suspension of disbelief. The film has a very distinctive look, with lots of bright colours, despite the morbid nature of the setting, which helps with the fairytale aspect of the story. A number of times the filmmakers choose to use a dip in frame rate of the camera, making movement appear jittery, and usually I find this very difficult to watch. It takes me out of the film, but here it seemed to work and even add to the scenes in which it was employed. I thought that the music was fantastic. It was very modern, leaning towards dance, but the thunderous drums through many of the chases and climactic scenes really amplified the tension and urgency of the images on screen. Like most of the other aspects of the film, as well as the events in the story itself, it all fits together in a unique and supremely satisfying way.
Slumdog Millionaire is without a doubt a great film and a fantastic start to 2009. It deserves all of the praise it has been receiving and I cannot recommend it highly enough. With excellent performances and direction and unparalleled vision the film offers the full gamut of emotions and themes presented in a uniquely stylish and endlessly enjoyable way.
Originally Published 2009.