20 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Simon Beaufoy
Full credits from IMDb

In the middle of Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s stylized and hyperkinetic crowd pleaser, a woman expounds on the appeal of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. “It offers a chance for escape, doesn’t it?” Not for our hero, Dev Patel, a contestant on the show, for whom it functions like the brink of death, provoking his life to flash before his eyes and forcing him to confront the painful narrative of his life story up to now.

Pitched between artifice and authenticity, the film succeeds as neither. Patel plays a slumdog, low on the Indian caste system, who has won millions of rupees on the trivia-testing gameshow, leading the authorities to believe he’s cheated. After police interrogate him (with, er, enhanced techniques), Patel reveals a series of personal anecdotes, each of which ends with how he learned an answer to a question from the show. (This being a Danny Boyle film, one such tidbit includes swimming in shit.) His childhood reverence for Bollywood stars; his orphaning by anti-Muslim mobs; his time with eye-gouging beggar-managers (reminiscent of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island sequence); hustling tourists at the Taj Mahal; and so on.

What begins as a neat narrative structure is soon revealed as gimmick, as each anecdote and its usefulness in the present becomes increasingly absurd. But, after all, this is a gimmicky film, not least of all in its music video aesthetic. By trade, Boyle is a flashy filmmaker, but even he outdoes himself here with the rat-a-tat edits, the canted cameras, the unreal citrus-colored lights and the scrunching close-ups. Slumdog is so MTVed as to border on the incomprehensible, all the more criminal as its intricate production design—trash-strewn lots packed with people, cars and hovels—gets lost in the cuts. (At first I thought this might be a clever means of representing the jumbled memory of juvenescence, but the aesthetic continues into the present-day.) It feels like a music video’s view of child poverty, amplified by the M.I.A. on the soundtrack during the time-skipping montages. Boyle’s not really taking his material seriously—but then why is the script always so damn serious?

Slumdog Millionaire tries to touch on themes of third-world poverty, fraternity and betrayal. Jumping between genres, as is Boyle’s wont, the film switches between police procedural, epic romance, gang movie and life on the streets picture. Boyle borrows the Angels with Dirty Faces model of childhood friends (here, brothers) who wind up on divergent paths: one a gangster, the other gone straight. One way to make a lot of money, the filmmakers suggest, is with a gun; of course, that way of life ends by the gun as well. The other is to use your head. Perhaps without realizing it, though, Slumdog perpetuates that old myth about the nobility of poverty. You don’t get smart by staying in school—real learning, from trivia to how to survive, happens on the streets. So the poor are lucky to be poor. That the slumdog is vindicated at the end, and turned into a Mumbai-electrifying folk hero, frees the audience from responsibility for the underpriviliged; as long as they hustle harder to get onto TV, they’ll be fine.

Boyle only says this accidentally, though; Slumdog really wants to say nothing at all, to abandon all its half-introduced ideas—including how modern office complexes are literally and figuratively built on the foundations of the slums—to build to an extravagant Bollywoodesque dance number. The film makes pretenses toward serious filmmaking, but it’s only escapism, trading in pure pap. Which is fine, I guess—but then why’s it winning awards? Grade: B-

Watch the trailer:

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