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Slumdog Millionaire (15)

Danny Boyle's 'feel-good’ award-winner is a world away from sweetness and light, says Rachel Winterbottom

Written by . Published on January 16th 2009.


Slumdog Millionaire (15)

EVER wonder what happens in the advert breaks on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? How about a quick slap around the face, suspended from the ceiling by your wrists and an electric current shot through your body via your toes? That Chris Tarrant, what a card.

Boyle’s film doesn’t just sympathise with life in the slums of India, it shows genuine understanding. Despite the dark and violent nature of the children of the slums' upbringing, there is a vibrancy to Jamal’s childhood scenes that jumps off the screen

18-year-old Jamal Malik is a contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire and he’s one question away from winning a possible 20 million rupees when the show breaks for the evening. The presenter (Anil Kapoor), suspicious of Jamal, has him hastily arrested between filming for cheating. The police, it transpires, have a few questions too. How does an uneducated boy from the slums of Mumbai know all the answers? Why is he there in the first place when he clearly has no interest in the money? Could this tea serving chai-wallah’s incredible success really just be down to coincidence?

Skins' Dev Patel plays Jamal, a boy who has been through so much that he could beat Casino Royal’s Bond in a quipping-under-torture contest. His intensity keeps you guessing as to his innocence, even through to the penultimate Millionaire question. This especially helps with suspending belief long enough for the film’s coincidence-forged formula to sneak past your cynical side. As the inspector comments at one point, the way Jamal tells it, it seems bizarrely possible.

Coincidence or ‘destiny’ rather, is what drives the plot. Each Millionaire question asked relates to a significant incident in Jamal’s life, taking you on a journey through his turbulent childhood in the slums of Mumbai. It is a beautiful premise - that there is a reason or a story behind why you know any piece of information. It’s just that this normally tends to be, ‘I saw it on QI.’

Here, however, it’s because Jamal has lived a violent life and, in place of standard schooling, his education has been on the streets. In anyone else’s hands, the question-fuelled flashbacks could have become staid. But Slumdog is directed by the same mind that brought us a drug addict’s vision of a dead baby crawling along a ceiling in Trainspotting. Nothing dull about that.

Danny Boyle masterfully handles a narrative that weaves through three different ages of his main characters, Jamal, his older brother, Salim, and the budding waif, Lakita (a stunning Freida Pinto).

Orphaned by the Bombay riots, the three are caught by the sinister gangster Maman (Ankur Vikal), a nightmarish Fagin without the ratings restrictions, and forced to beg on the streets for him. Realising that Maman was laming his charges – shedding a whole new light on the limbless children in his care - Jamal and Salim’s younger counterparts escape, though they’re forced to leave Lakita behind.

Based on the book Q & A by Indian writer Vikas Swarup, the film artfully mixes Hindi with English so seamlessly that you barely notice the transitions between subtitles and the English language segments. Boyle’s film doesn’t just sympathise with life in the slums of India, it shows genuine understanding. Despite the dark and violent nature of the children of the slums' upbringing, there is a vibrancy to Jamal’s childhood scenes that jumps off the screen. The film has a youthful energy, pulling you along with the young Jamal and Samil on their adventures, through the loud, bright market places and down side streets, from Mumbai to the Taj Mahal, to the roofs of moving trains - always one jump ahead of the lawmen.

That’s pretty much where the Aladdin comparisons end. The violence is unflinching: a young orphan beggar has his eyes melted because blind children "earn double", Patel’s present day Jamal is brutally tortured for the truth in-between cuts, and children watch their mothers get clubbed to death in riots. And yet, despite all of this, the film remains surprisingly upbeat (though maybe not so upbeat as to qualify the Bollywood number at the close).

Scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) juggles the dark tone with a stubborn sense of optimism. This isn’t a feel-good comedy, but the film is kept buoyant by the prevalence of childhood innocence against an impossible backdrop. This is through Jamal, who maintains his love and desperate search for Lakita despite the damning odds. Slumdog almost manages to avoid sentimentality altogether, as Salim is the portrait to Jamal’s Dorian Grey; his decline into the gang culture that plagued their childhood offsetting his brother’s virtue at every turn.

It would be easy to view Slumdog Millionaire as contrived. Why does every game show question relate to an episode of the boy’s life in chronological order? Isn’t coincidence just a lazy plot device? With Boyle’s recent success at the Golden Globes surely a prelude to Oscar night, Slumdog is bound to get people contesting whether emotional manipulation equates to cinematic brilliance. The bottom of Blockbuster bargain-bins may soon hold the answer to that question; they did with Crash.

Still, that a British film has fought its way through the usual Hollywood slush pile alone should make it worth watching. And, for once, it genuinely is.

7/10

*Slumdog Millionaire (15) is on general release

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Gringo SalamanderJanuary 16th 2009.

More Boyle than Bombay, remember the Monty Python sketch 'Salad Days by Sam Peckinpah' - where a blazers and boaters garden party turns into a bloodbath? Never mind the subject matter, let the director do his thing. And Boyle does brutality and excreta. Imagine him doing a Jane Austen (in the slums of Bath no doubt where everyone gets their heads kicked in, down a s**t smeared toilet bowl of course). Is 'Slumdog Millionaire' going to do for India what 'Midnight Express' did for Turkey? Hasn't poor India had a tough enough time already?

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