Slumdog Millionaire - the improbable story of how an Indian boy from the slums becomes a national hero on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" - seems like an unlikely film from Danny Boyle, director of such wildly diverse fare as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and the sci-fi think-piece, Sunshine.
That is until you see it, and realize that Boyle has recreated the magic that he hit with Trainspotting: a tour-de-farce of outsider characters living on the edge, only with a story and culture from a vastly different part of the world.
This unique story isn't perfect, to be sure. Jamal Malik, our impoverished Muslim hero living in the Hindi slums, answers so many questions correctly on this TV game show based on the American hit that he's been sent to the police for extreme interrogation, to find out how he must have cheated (a result unlikely to happen in, say, America, the movie seems to want to emphasize). The film intersperses the police interrogation with scenes from Jamal's childhood, each scene a kind of essay on how the particular question on the game show dovetails neatly into his unique experience as a "slumdog" growing up in the impoverished slums of Bombay. The setup is of course artificial and a bit corny, as are the gangsters that Jamal and his brother, Salim, get mixed up with at the end.
But in between, Boyle creates an wholly original filmic portrayal of two boys growing up in the slums of India, finding a way to survive on their own. While that might sound dreary, Boyle's cinema is lively, his camera work finding beauty, life, and haunting imagery amongst the masses of humanity, and his soundtrack punctuating a life on the road with a sense of freedom and romanticism as well as danger. Just one small example: in trying to get an autograph from a film hero visiting town, the young (six year old?) Jamal must escape being locked into an outhouse by his brother by jumping into the shit below. When he emerges, he's covered in shit, and goes to solicit the autograph just that way. But covered in shit is exactly the right metaphor for how Jamal is born into the world. He is the lowest of the low...and a completely unlikely character to be answering a question of national television that could win him twenty million rupees. As Jamal recounts his life on the streets, the movie becomes a kind of mix of classic film innovations set in the land of outsourcing, a kind of "Bicycle Thief" crossed with "Blade Runner" run across the colors and sounds of Bollywood. I particularly like how the three lifelines of the game show (audience answer, fifty-fifty, and call a friend) are used in appropriate dramatic fashion, uniting the drama of the show with the drama of Jamal's life in just the right way.
To say that the subject of the movie is timely would be an understatement. The India we see in this movie is a third-world country quickly and unevenly lurching into the first world, and Boyle gets the sense of cultural change, entrenched prejudice, and lazy criminality exactly right - or at least, as close to the sense of India I know from my Indian colleagues. And given the recent violence in Mumbai, even the violent treatment of Jamal seems plausibly credible.
Boyle does an effective job of turning Jamal's fifteen minutes of fame into a story of unadulterated romance - after all, isn't "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire" the ultimate romance, especially for a boy from the slums? That financial romance is transferred to a woman, Latika, who is Jamal's "third musketeer" and long lost love, and the quest for the financial prize as well as Latika's heart is effectively tied together to create an appropriately rapturous climax.
Of course, if you've seen the TV show even once, you can pretty much guess right away where Boyle's device is ultimately going to take you. And perhaps that predictability makes the film seem a bit over long. But the fact that Boyle needs to resort to some cliche stereotypes and gangster storylines to make this all come together may be beside the point. By the time the end arrives it's clear that this isn't a "realistic" movie so much as a parable, a fantasy, of an entire population that is adopting the febrile imagination of American culture as a way to escape the harsh realities of their birth. The movie mirrors the improbable romantic outcome that all of India desires, and delivers their Hollywood ending with deep feeling as well as delicious grooves. This is a fable, a fairy-tale, after all, and one in Bollywood style - and so some fairy-tale villains and heroes are, perhaps, necessary.
I really did want to find Boyle's fairy tale ending a more decisive reason to dismiss the film. But despite myself, I couldn't. Despite myself, Boyle's film reminded me of my own fairy-tale infatuation with harsh and imposing cities (New York, in my case), and the music, characters, and images from his movie seem to gain more power in the imagination the longer the movie sits with me. There is great life, in this movie about how poverty impoverishes and romance overcomes. The closing dance over the final credits only emphasizes that; the music is great, the actors are celebrating, it's impossible to not want to get up and join the boogie. And even a jaded cynic like me can't help but appreciate being reminded of the joy that only great literature, or great filmaking, can provide.