Slumdog Millionaire is the antithesis of the prestige pictures of years past. 2007, in particular, was about dark, complex pictures that also served as meditations on the evil that men are capable of. Slumdog Millionaire does away with all that, attacking the screen with unyielding optimism and joy, bringing the audience into an escapist fantasy world where every underdog will get his day. It’s an approach that comes with flaws, but it’s an enjoyable romp, nonetheless.
Jamal (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning the big prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Because he comes from the slums, the host begins to suspect that Jamal may be cheating, and he has the police arrest him. Jamal is interrogated by the police, who cannot believe that Jamal could possibly know all those things when doctors and lawyers constantly fail on the show. Jamal tells them his story of growing up an orphan in the slums, of the love that he’s trying to find, and the destiny that has provided him the answers.
The story is unabashedly romantic, never once swaying as it barrels through the moviescape with unending positivity and boundless optimism. Whatever darkness is present in the film is only there to be overwhelmed by goodness, the moustache-twirling villains only there to wait for their comeuppance. That isn’t a bad thing at all, as the emotional uplift provided by this set up is real and palpable, and on its own, makes for a pretty enjoyable experience. But there’s no avoiding what the movie is: pure melodrama. It’s good melodrama, but it does suffer from a general lack of nuance and a predilection for contrivance. The main characters aren’t as developed as they really ought to be, the love story between Jamal and Latika coming off as pretty cloying and generally unearned.
The film benefits much from the hand of Danny Boyle. Boyle, who helmed Trainspotting and the outbreak gorefest 28 Days Later, brings a pretty powerful visual aesthetic to the picture. The word being thrown around is “kinetic;” in some scenes the camera is as hungry and restless as the characters in the film, tumbling through the slums of Mumbai with a truly infectious energy. Boyle’s Mumbai is part grit and part color, harsh yet bursting with life, reminiscent of Brocka’s slums in Insiang and Maynila sa Kuka ng Liwanag. It’s Boyle’s filmmaking that really gives the film momentum, making it easy to overlook some of the film’s narrative excesses.
Dev Patel is watchable enough as the film’s hero, though it’s obvious that he still has a lot to learn. He doesn’t quite have a middle gear, shifting from one big emotion to another without an appropriate build. The same can be said about his leading lady, Freida Pinto. The two main actors don’t actually have a lot of chemistry, but the rest of the cast more than makes up for it. The actors cast as the younger versions of the characters bring a lot of charm to their roles. Madhur Mittal, who plays Patel’s brother, manages some complexity in his character. And any scene with Irrfan Khan or Anil Kapoor is just terribly good.
Slumdog Millionaire is really quite a good watch, though I would contend that it’s not nearly as good as people say it is. It’s a pure escapist fantasy, and in these trying times, that may be exactly what audiences need. From a more sober critical standpoint, however, that escapism comes with a level of artificiality, weakening the characters and robbing the film of authenticity and depth. But I’ve said before that a single-minded pursuit in cinema can be extremely entertaining, contrivances be damned, and that’s exactly what we have here. Slumdog Millionaire has its joy, and that may be enough.