Slumdog Millionaire is an exuberant, emotional and uplifting film from Danny Boyle. Sukhdev Sandhu, writing in the Daily Telegraph (9 January 2009), compared it to Usain Bolt’s world record-breaking performance at the Beijing Olympics: ‘funny, shocking, spectacularly turbo-charged. It takes your breath away at the same time as it makes you want to holler with joy or to grab the person next to you: “Yes!”’ It is rare for a film to so effectively combine warmth, humour, sadness, tragedy, excitement, longing, betrayal, social issues and a zest for life.
It's not without its problems, of course, but I was very happy to let myself get swept along by it. Boyle has made some edgy, unconventional and extremely interesting films that are a refreshing change from mainstream Hollywood offerings. I was therefore already predisposed to enjoy Slumdog Millionaire, and to forgive its weaknesses. It seems that many others felt similarly, or else engaged so quickly with the central characters that they were soon caught up in its vivid, life-affirming whirl. Critics, often a deeply cynical bunch, have also fallen for the film’s charms, giving it a 91% ‘fresh rating’ on Rotten Tomatoes. It was the star of the 2009 Golden Globes, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Score, and was nominated for ten Academy Awards.
Slumdog Millionaire was loosely adapted by The Full Monty screenwriter Simon Beaufoy from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A. It’s the story of a young man’s surprising success on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? At the beginning of the film, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is just one question away from the top prize of twenty million rupees. And in police custody. Such remarkable progress for an ignorant eighteen-year-old from Mumbai’s slums is beyond the bounds of belief for the show’s egotistical and patronising presenter, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) – unless he is cheating. When the programme runs out of time, the police are already waiting outside to arrest him. The police torture him overnight, but he refuses to admit anything. Gradually, the Inspector (Irrfan Khan) begins to realise that Jamal is as surprised as anyone by his success, and he finally allows the young man to explain himself.
As the police take Jamal through each of the questions he’s answered, we see his life in flashback. Along with the Inspector, we come to understand how he is able to answer every question that comes up. One interpretation of the events is that Jamal is simply extraordinarily lucky. He’s bright, but life has not given this slum boy any breaks so far, and he remains extremely ignorant of many things. He has no education and he works in a call centre as a chai wallah, a tea boy. He just happens to know the answers to the questions which come up. Unless he really is cheating, or unless it's his destiny, the show could so easily have gone very differently. Given his background, we wonder what possessed Jamal to think that he had any chance at all on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Eventually, we realise that Jamal had no more expectation of his doing well than Prem Kumar. His motivation is not money, however, but love.
The flashbacks give us three phases of Jamal’s life, first as a seven-year-old, living with his mother and his older brother Salim in a Mumbai slum. When the Muslim community is attacked by a group of radical hindus, Jamal and Salim find themselves alone in the world. That night, as they take shelter from the pouring rain, the two boys see a young girl who has also been orphaned standing out in the rain. Salim wants to keep their shelter just for themselves, but Jamal invites her in. The girl is Latika, and her life becomes inextricably intertwined with Jamal’s. Latika is soon separated from the brothers, but Jamal never forgets her.
By the time he is thirteen, Jamal and Salim have been through several hilarious money-making adventures, including stealing tourists’ shoes at the Taj Mahal and dangling from the roofs of trains to sell food to, or steal food from, passengers. Eventually, Jamal tracks Latika down again, and rescues her from the seedy world in which she is trapped. By this point, the two brothers are edging towards different paths in life. Salim has always wanted to be the tough guy, and he is drawn to the glamour of the gangster life. Jamal, on the other hand, is unfalteringly good. He is patient, gentle and good-natured. So it is a cruel blow when he is swiftly separated from Latika again, and it’s another five years before their paths cross once more – shortly before Jamal’s appearance on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Like most Indian films, Slumdog Millionaire is a fairy tale. It’s a rags to riches tale, a love story, an escaping-the-clutches-of-the-bad-guys yarn. Fairy tales have an escapist aspect to them, taking people away from the grim realities of everyday life to a world in which other grim realities can be surmounted, defeated or decisively left behind. The story is not believable, but that’s beside the point. In Bollywood films, the song and dance numbers break into the narrative, reminding viewers of its fictional nature. The closing credits of Slumdog do the same.
This doesn’t mean that there is no serious point to be made. The squalor of Mumbai’s slums is more than a colourful and chaotic backdrop to the story. The city is a character in its own right, with its mushrooming development and rapidly growing economy playing a role in affecting Jamal’s and Salim’s sense of their place in it. Slumdog Millionaire draws attention to the tensions at the centre of contemporary life in India: squalor alongside glitzy development, poverty juxtaposed with wealth, celebrity in the midst of vast numbers of people who are easily overlooked. Then there are the religious tensions, the problem of organised crime, corruption, exploitation, the disenfranchisement of the poor and the impact of the media.
Some critics have objected to the film for being patronising on these issues. But while it only raises questions, rather than presenting answers, it does put them into the foreground. It isn’t a film about these issues, but it shows clearly that they are very much a part of Mumbai’s life. Sukhdev Sandhu writes:
Slumdog Millionaire is as acerbic as it is clear-eyed about the brutal power dynamics in modern-day Mumbai. But, at the same time, what makes it so warming and what has been inspiring audiences all across the world to cheer at its rousing ending, is its passion for a place that writer Suketu Mehta has described as a ‘maximum city’.
Mumbai has been through hell recently. But Slumdog Millionaire, whose everyman hero is a Muslim, is a wonderful tribute to it and to its people.
I’m not sure that audiences are necessarily inspired by the passion for the city, as by the heart-warming story, but the intensity of the place is a crucial part of the whole.
Far more central is the growing tension between the two brothers and the choices they make. While Salim seizes the first opportunity to be in with the big boys, pursuing wealth and glamour even if the route is illegal, Jamal is content to settle for much less. He feels the pressure to make enough money to survive, and would clearly like more, but he’s not driven by greed. Certainly as a boy he is quite prepared to engage in illegal scams to make some money, but he finds the gangster world of Salim morally repugnant. He is overwhelmed by love, rather than being focused on gratifying his desires. It seems that Jamal recognises that the fundamental difference between himself and Salim is the nature of their freedom. His story is a celebration of freedom. In an early scene, when the film star Amitabh Bachchan arrives at the airport next to their slum, Salim barricades his little brother into a toilet shack on stilts above the raw sewage. But Jamal refuses to be confined when there is a chance of getting his idol’s autograph, and he takes the only escape route regardless of the cost to his dignity. He makes similar choices throughout the film: he will not be confined, constrained or enslaved; he is his own man. Latika, on the other hand, is forcibly enslaved for much of the film, with no power to escape however much she longs to. Salim has the same autonomy as Jamal, but he chooses to opt in to a system that will not let him go. He effectively becomes a willing captive, surrendering almost entirely his freedom to act as he pleases for the sake of the rewards.
These two responses to the same circumstances are a challenge to viewers. How should we choose to respond to what life throws at us? Do we put expediency and personal gain above morality, loyalty and even freedom? Or do we value integrity, freedom and love above material considerations?
 uk.rottentomatoes.com/m/slumdog_millionaire, accessed 19 January 2009