What's all the fuss about 'Slumdog Millionaire'?

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Danny Boyle's critical darling 'Slumdog Millionaire' has made a killing at the box office and is now being lavished with awards. Tom Huddleston can't quite understand why

Danny Boyle’s new film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has taken the movie world by storm. Adapted from the popular novel ‘Q&A’ by Vikas Swarup, it tells the story of a poor Mumbai street urchin who grows up to be a telemarketing assistant, and finally a contestant on India’s version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ The film has already won Best Drama at the Golden Globes, and looks set to sweep the BAFTAS, and very possibly the Oscars.

There’s no sense arguing that ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is an out-and-out bad film, it isn’t. There’s a lot to enjoy: Anthony Dod Mantle’s vivid cinematography, some bracingly kinetic action sequences and, for the first hour at least, an exuberant and dynamic sense of adventure. The flashback sequences are, for the most part, well constructed, and nicely acted by a gaggle of precocious pre-teen non-actors. Simply as a window into another world, one most of us rarely get to see, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ justifies it’s existence.

But best film of the year? Feelgood film of the year? This is a story which features every kind of degradation: poverty, child prostitution, murder, theft, blackmail, religious intolerance, vicious exploitation. A nine-year-old boy has his eyes burned out with acid, and yet audiences are still apparently strolling from cinemas whistling AR Rahman’s dire (yet inexplicably BAFTA-nominated) bhangrabeat soundtrack. There’s something disturbing about a film which depicts such abject horrors and still manages to end on such an upbeat note: it’s like if Schindler’s List ended with a song ‘n’ dance number. By allowing audiences to leave the cinema happy, doesn’t the film also allow them to conveniently forget all the earlier horror?

But the political aspect of ‘Slumdog’ could be debated endlessly, as could any film that hijacks a serious subject for entertainment purposes: ‘Blood Diamond’, ‘Milk’, pretty much any wartime adventure. The arguments for either side are clear: on the one hand, the filmmakers are exploiting real life suffering for financial gain, on the other they’re drawing attention to an otherwise ignored issue. ‘Slumdog’ throws this argument into sharp relief because the gulf between the horrors it depicts and the third-act outcome is so yawning, but it doesn’t, in the end, bring any kind of closure to a discussion that will doubtless rage as long as movies are being made.

And besides, ‘Slumdog’ has far more serious problems to contend with than a little cultural exploitation. Danny Boyle has a longstanding habit of making films which set themselves up competently – often battering audiences into submission with a combination of snappy camera moves, smash editing and loud, infectious music – before collapsing into nonsensical contrivance in the last act: think ‘Shallow Grave’, ‘The Beach’, ’28 Days Later’ and especially the tragic waste of a good concept that was ‘Sunshine’. ‘Slumdog’ follows this template slavishly.

The first hour of the film contains some genuinely memorable moments: a headlong chase through the slum streets, a shocking moment of mass racial violence and that excruciating, haunting blinding scene. But it’s all gone to hell by act three, as the script’s focus narrows and the three protagonists age from naïve, scrappy slum kids to increasingly unlikely and unlikeable teenagers. The love triangle that develops between them, with tedious inevitability, serves to completely stifle the film’s forward momentum, as it stops being an exploration of India’s poverty problem and becomes a trite, histrionic and predictable melodrama of coincidence played out between the three awkward, uninvolving heroes and a troupe of identikit snarling gangsters.

The common defence for the film’s wildly unconvincing finale, and particularly that shockingly crass climactic dance number, is that Boyle is appropriating and subverting the motifs of Bollywood cinema for his own ends. But this technique simply doesn’t work, so it feels like we’ve wandered from a fairly intelligent, well-made and compelling hardship drama into a cack-handed West End musical with as much narrative integrity and character insight as an episode of ‘Hollyoaks’.

I’ve refrained, thus far, from discussing the film’s framing narrative, but it can’t be ignored any longer. The idea of constructing a film around a quiz, and showing how the characters arrived at their knowledge of particular questions, is an intriguing one. But it’s as though Boyle can’t wait to shake off the restrictions imposed by this device and let loose – the narrative logic behind each new answer becomes increasingly strained and coincidental. We’re also asked to believe that a TV executive, albeit a particularly surly third world TV executive with a creepy beard, would tie a quiz contestant up and apply electrodes to his chest. We were expecting Jamal to face a few tough questions, but nobody was expecting the Spanish Inquisition.

The other problem with these sequences is right there up front: Dev Patel. Now, I’m not going to start gouging chunks out of a young, relatively inexperienced actor in his first big role, but Patel simply lacks onscreen charisma, particularly when compared to the sparky, naturalistic and compelling performances of his younger counterparts Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Chheda. Just as we’re never told exactly how Jamal comes to learn English – and speak it with barely a trace of an accent – it’s also left to us to figure out where his personality disappeared to. The awards buzz surrounding Patel’s performance seems completely out of proportion, and even slightly patronising.

But we expect the big awards voters to get it wrong – they do so every year without fail, with the most deserving films receiving scant reward. What’s surprising is that audiences and critics seemed to have been sucked in by ‘Slumdog’ too – it’s arguably the best reviewed film of the past six months, and has been doing extraordinary business both here and in the US. It seems (and probably is) churlish to begrudge a homegrown hit a chance at success, but ‘Slumdog’ simply doesn’t deserve it, not when there’s so much out there more deserving of an audience’s time and hard-earned dollars.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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