Dir. Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Slumdog Millionaire; that the title of the film is a contradiction in itself serves to highlight the contradictions surrounding this film. A British/Indian co-production, directed by Danny Boyle (the veteran filmmaker behind the seemingly disparate 28 Days Later and Millions) and Loveleen Tandan (her directorial debut), one might expect a healthy dose of post-colonial awkwardness. But to the world of this film, what seem like contradictions are just side-effects of living in an increasingly complex world.
It makes strange sense that this is Boyle’s Magnum-Opus. It has the heightened naturalism of Trainspotting, the cruelty of Shallow Grave, the methodical procedure of Sunshine, the child-like awe and wonder of Millions, the visceral dilemmas of survival from 28 Days Later, and the fantastic hope of the awful (I mean downright bad) mess that was A Life Less Ordinary. Here, all of those elements fit perfectly and fluidly. While this is a movie that got a crowd of cold, and (sic) sophisticated Manhattanites to cheer, and is probably the most effective epic romance I’ve seen this decade, it works so effectively because it, like Dickens’ best works (think the structure of Bleak House with characters borrowed from Oliver Twist given the moodiness of Great Expectations), isn’t afraid to show us the darker side of human nature (bordering on the horrific), before showing it at its best (bordering on the absurdly generous).
I guess I was obligated to say that Millionaire is “Dickensian” as it seems every review about the film I’ve read has used the term. True, the film is melodramatic (not used pejoratively here, it’s the film’s decided mode of discourse) and has its share of contrived plot points, and like Dickens’ works the whole is better than most of its parts. But this ignores the fact that Boyle and Tandan have tied the film to a deeper cinematic tradition. Slumdog Millionare is a Bollywood film (or at times more specifically a Tamil) film without the song and dance numbers and brings to the surface a level of gritty brutality which underscores the plots of many Bollywood and especially Tamil films. Both in plot (the epic love story, the mystical found in the everyday, a love triangle, stunt work, the use of a story-within a story, comedy, corruption, and reversals of fortune, rages to [perhaps] riches, heightened more-real-than-reality basically you get your money's worth, your paisa vasool) and in its depiction of the plot (this is not MTV style camera work, as some have said, it’s Bollywood style). The film may not have any musical numbers per-se but it definitely has the earnest romanticism that usually accompanies the very best of musicals.
The score by A.R. Rahman, who Time magazine called the “Mozart of Madras,” with some help from alt-rapper MIA, is in itself an achievement to be celebrated. It seamlessly incorporates traditional and modern musical styles, East and West, as well as those familiar sound effects from Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, all without telegraphing any sort of emotional response.
Boyle and Tandan also approach the film with a very loose transparency. It’s not quite self-reflexive, but it does, in its title sequences and interesting use of subtitles, acknowledge that this is for an audience, one of the refreshing conceits found in nearly all Hindi films. It also recognizes the influence of media (of which this knows it’s a part), television and film, in the construction of fantasies as well as in inter-cultural discourse; the fact that this film’s structure is based on a Indian version of a UK game show popularized in the US, the use of Bollywood (the modern style quite informed by 80’s MTV) film footage, and three prominently placed Bollywood posters in the film’s final scene all acknowledge this discussion within the film. And for all of those worried about post-colonial guilt, the film’s final sequence can be seen as a reclamation of the film by its Indian elements.
The cast, except the film’s star Dev Patel who actually is not in the film as much as the younger versions of his character, and those younger actors really are amazing, are taken from Bollywood films. Anil Kapoor (five-time Film Fare [Indian Oscar equivalent] award winning actor), playing the game show’s self-important host, adds a surprising level of depth to a character who’s performing as a character throughout most of the film. Irrfan Khan (this is one of eight films he’s acted in this year) gives a stellar performance as the rough but ultimately sympathetic police interrogator.
This film has Oscar written all-over it, more so (in the tradition of what comes to mind when one thinks of an Oscar-winning film) than many other films which have contended in the past few years. It has everything that a Best Picture winner should have. It will be interesting to see if the Academy is ready for it. Despite their choices, this is a breathtaking film, and one that hopefully will increase the dialogue between the contemporary cinemas of India and the West.