A film opened on Wednesday set in India, funded by British production companies, revolving around the Indian version of a British television show, and filmed in India by a British director with Indian actors speaking both Hindi and English. Got that?
Last Sunday, it won the American Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s time to play a game. This came about because: a) the Academy voters are sick and tired of their own products; b) Neocolonialism is hot; c) The plight of the Indian poor deserves meaningless accolades; d) Slumdog Millionaire is a really great film.
We’ll use our 50-50 lifeline to take away two of the incorrect answers—a) and c). The Academy Awards isn’t meaningless (anything watched by millions can’t be), but it’s pretty close. In 1927, studio heads created the Academy, which has about 6,000 members, to disenfranchise industry workers. As the de facto company union, its job was to prevent other unions from forming. The awards were incidental. Slumdog’s Best Picture statuette reflects the opinion of a few thousand American craftsmen and women—public relations officers, art directors, and so on—who work in western Los Angeles County, California.
Do these SoCal stiffs have a fetish for analyzing Anglo-Indian relations, or do they just love Slumdog Millionaire? Let’s ask the audience—the movie audience, that is.
Jamal and his older brother Salim live in a Mumbai ghetto as young children do—subverting every authority they can. In the film’s vibrant opening sequence, they outrun and outwit the police, get dragged to school by their single mother, and get beaten by their teacher. A brutal community attack, fueled by ethnic hatred, leaves the boys orphaned and homeless. Shivering, soaked, broke and broken, they meet another orphan, Latika, and try to survive with the creed of their old literature book, The Three Musketeers—all for one, and one for all.
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), cinematographer Anthony Mantle and editor Chris Dickens unfold Jamal’s journey piece by kaleidoscopic piece, in tightly-paced snippets of colour and colourful dialogue. Simon Beaufoy’s script is briskly chaptered—Jamal’s appearance on India’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and his slow progress up an ever-larger mountain of rupees, provides the structural room for flashbacks, flash forwards and moments of surrealism.
We get three films in one—a rags to possible-riches suspense, a buddy comedy with Jamal and Salim (played by three actors each, ending with Dev Patel and Madhur Mittal in the adult roles), and an epic love story between Jamal and Latika (again with three actors, last by Freida Pinto) as they try to overcome betrayal, poverty, geography, doubt, and trauma.
Sleeping security guards, beggars at four-way intersections, young gunmen on nighttime streets—these and other details collapse the distance between the East and West Indies, between Navi Mumbai and New Kingston. A don frustrated with the cricket match on TV. A police force acting as judge, jury and executioner. No wonder the audience at Carib clapped, cheered and cried.
In the end, it doesn’t matter which answer is right, or what the authorities say. Slumdog Millionaire tells us—wonderfully, wordlessly, and winningly—the only thing that matters is whether you give up. Keep playing, no matter the odds, no matter the past, no matter the cost, no matter the pain. All for one. One for all.
Directed by Danny Boyle.
With Dev Patel, Freida Pinto and Anil Kapoor.
120 minutes. Drama.