Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is the latest example of why the director is so good at making movies in different genres: It’s got the connective thread of emotional honesty, fidelity of character, and devotion to the story’s specific universe that links it with everything from Boyle’s drama Shallow Grave to the horror of 28 Days Later to the children’s film Millions. Boyle can jump from one style to another because he always brings a level of truth to his films, and that’s one of the many things that makes Slumdog Millionaire such a joy to watch. The film is beautiful, sad, sweet, uplifting, and thoroughly entertaining, but above all it’s honest, a paean to life and love that stands firmly rooted in reality even as it reaches for the heavens. The story bounces around in time and often rapidly shifts location or mood, flirting with everything from comedy to drama to a blend of fantasy and reality that’s completely engaging and works on every level.
The film opens with a multiple-choice question: “In Mumbai 2006, Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? (a) He cheated. (b) He’s lucky. (c) He’s a genius. (d) It is written.” The small moment encapsulates everything that will follow, from the sense of being against the odds to the chance that sometimes, destiny just takes over. The first few minutes of the film are hectic ones that smash between Jamal (Dev Patel), an Indian teenager, sitting in the hot seat on the local edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and his being tortured and interrogated in a grimy holding cell by a slovenly guard who wants to know how the boy cheated. Jamal is punched and cut, has his face plunged underwater, and is even briefly hooked up to a car battery, but he holds to his story — that he knew the answers, that he won the game show honestly — even when the sergeant turns him over to the inspector (Irfan Khan). At this point, it becomes clear that Jamal’s time on the game show is the hub around which the rest of the story will revolve, and Boyle keeps coming back to it before shooting off on other connected spokes. The inspector puts in a tape of Jamal’s appearance on the show and plays it from the beginning, and as Boyle slides into the past and back into the present, the questions on the show become springboards that launch Jamal’s story to the inspector and send the viewer back through the young man’s life.
The screenplay from Simon Beaufoy, adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A, evolves in elliptical bursts, beginning back when Jamal was just a small boy getting into trouble with his older brother, Salim, and other boys flying through the alleys of what was then Bombay. Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle capture the city as a teeming mass of people and animals and filth all writhing under a hot sun and corrugated tin roofs; the camera is almost never still, and the frame often slides off balance or pushes in for a close-up as if the city itself is rising up like an ocean. Although the scenes with the older Jamal are performed in English, the flashbacks switch to subtitles that appear at random places on the screen and against blocks of color, a gimmick that forcibly calls attention to the dialogue made visible but also makes it work on a larger scale; it’s as if Boyle isn’t just making the film, he’s presenting it, making it into something punchier and more evocative than you’d expect. Jamal’s life unfolds in sections that often culminate in heartrending reveals tied into the questions he will be asked a decade later on a primetime quiz show, from his run-in with a national celebrity to his firsthand account of gang wars and religion-fueled murders. Boyle’s stylized storytelling is like an epic storybook blended with gritty human drama, and it gives the characters an air of playing a role in something larger than themselves without turning them into caricatures or place-holders. These are ultimately real people going through real trials and changes.
Soon enough, Jamal and Salim meet a young girl their age named Latika, and it’s this triangle that propels the rest of the story forward. And it’s not the predictable set-up of a girl coming between two boys; or rather, the emotions manifest themselves differently than in most stories. From childhood, Jamal is drawn to Latika, but Salim views her at best as a friend, usually considering her something to deal with instead of care about. Instead of firing up a trite love triangle, Latika’s presence in the boys’ world highlights their conflicting worldviews, with Jamal viewing Latika as end and Salim only seeing her as means. Even as they grow up and drift apart and come back together, Jamal never stops loving her or, when he has to, searching for her: That’s simply the way he’s wired.
As the film continually circles back to the game show and Jamal’s amazing run at fame and fortune, it becomes clear that his entire life has fed into this chance at redeeming himself and putting back together the family and relationships that he’s never been able to maintain. Estranged from Salim (played as a young man by Madhur Mittal) and still searching for Latika (Freida Pinto), this is basically his last shot at putting his life back on what he thinks is the right track. Patel is wonderful in the role, charming enough to seem believable as a kid who’s struggled just to get this far and perfect at capturing that feeling of impossible angst and youth, as if nothing could stop you from getting what or who you wanted.
At its heart, Slumdog Millionaire is another of the billion stories of what it means to be fully and helplessly human. Boyle has made a true coming-of-age film that balances technical skill with emotional heft, and that marries heartbreak with hope. It speaks of joy and sacrifice, of redemption and atonement, and the sense of destiny attendant with the unstoppable perseverance of selfless love. Perhaps the ultimate testament to Boyle’s skill at crafting a story that’s engaging on every level and an actual pleasure to watch is the inability to say more than that: It’s almost impossible to sum the film up or even get close without either completely blowing the plot or wandering into dangerous abstraction, into wonderings about fate and love and the feeling of being infinitely strong and young. What else can I say? It is written.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Even in Laughter the Heart May Ache
Film | December 30, 2008 | Comments ()