Film Review: “Slumdog Millionaire”

Quick take: A very compelling film, if not quite the upbeat story I’d been led to expect.
Closest equivalent:  “Life Is Beautiful,” the feel-good film about the Holocaust (Italy, 1998). 

Slow take:
I don’t like to read reviews before seeing a movie for myself, but in this case, I do wish I’d read beyond the one-line review excerpts or that someone had told me how grueling it is to watch “Slumdog Millionaire.”  This “rare feel-good movie” (Village Voice), this “buoyant hymn to life and a movie to celebrate” (TIME magazine), starts with a torture scene and proceeds through murders, mob violence, rape, child maiming, and multiple assaults.  I suppose anyone who’d seen Danny Boyle’s earlier film Trainspotting wouldn’t have been shocked; I hadn’t, so I was.  One of my companions actually had to leave her seat halfway through the film, it was that intense.

Jamal is a young boy from the Mumbai slums who’s on a winning streak in “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”  He’s just about to win the big prize when he is accused of cheating. No one believes an uneducated tea-boy could get so many answers right. 

In fact, there’s a harrowing story behind every one of his correct answers, and the movie is a series of flashbacks that tells his story and appears to illuminate the life of India’s poor children.  Along the way Jamal, his brother Salim, and their friend and eventual love interest Latika find themselves caught up in every “issue” you’ve ever heard about in India: prostitution, Hindu-Muslim violence, mafia-type gangs, call centers, children crippled so that they can earn more money begging, etc.  

So are we getting a skillfully woven portrait of an oppressed class, or a series of stereotypical situations strung together with lovely camerawork?  Hmmm.  As I was watching, it all felt very real, through the magic of cinema.  Now, through the equal magic of writing/reflecting, I’m aware of a sense of feeling somewhat manipulated.

In between these flashbacks, we see what looks like all of India, but especially poor folks, clustered around TV screens cheering Jamal on through the answers. These bits at least feel realistic.  Nowadays it’s just another game show, but I remember when “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” first aired in the U.S. and was such a sensation here. In India the show is called “Kaun Banega Crorepati,” and the first episodes were hosted by the most famous man in India, the actor Amitabh Bachchan.  We watched it on satellite tv and the thrill factor came all the way through the invisible airwaves, amplified by the clear love and devotion that the contestants and studio audiences had for their host.  (Regis, eat your heart out.)  In India “Crorepati” was huge huge huge, and the top prize was 1 crore, which is 10,000,000 rupees (10 million rupees or the fantastic sum of $200,000).  

“Slumdog Millionaire” dispenses with currency conversion, replaces the beloved host with a sneering bad guy, and translates all of this into English. 

In fact, all of the characters, including the grown-up slum kids, appear to have learned to speak and read English flawlessly.  This requires considerable suspension of disbelief, especially because the older Jamal couldn’t shake his full-on British schoolboy accent, and the older Latika — who starts out as a medium-brown tough ‘n’ scruffy ghetto girl — is a very light-skinned model acting in her first film, whose performance makes her more or less interchangeable with dozens of other Bollywood starlets.

But the younger children who play Jamal and Latika in the flashback sequences speak only Hindi.  That’s because these young actors really come from the slums. About a third of the script was rewritten from English to Hindi to accommodate them, according to the New York Times interview with the director.  Apparently teaching the children enough English to say their lines would have been more ridiculous than asking the audience to believe they just picked up perfect English somewhere along the way, despite a full schedule that includes hustling, begging, starving, and joining and fleeing gangs.

A lot of movies shot in India use very poor children, non-actors who give amazing performances that stun critics and audiences.  These kids are no exception; they’re stunning to watch.  I recently saw “The Terrorist,” a really beautiful and amazing South Indian film from 1999, where almost all of the parts were played by children, non-actors, who were just luminescent.  Is it immersion in Bollywood from infancy that makes Indian children so amazing on screen?

But I do wonder what kind of compensation these children receive, and whether it’s anywhere near a fair trade.  Are a few hot meals, maybe some money, and a little taste of glamor and fame enough? Is anything done to actually improve their lives and the lives of their families and communities?  Recently the makers of a 2005 documentary, “Born into Brothels,” about children growing up in Calcutta’s red-light district, were apparently sued over alleged infringement of the children’s rights.  What’s the line between shedding light on someone’s story, and exploiting it?  

That last question is something I’ve thought a lot about, with regard to telling my family’s story in Leaving India (although I didn’t interview children).  I don’t know if there’s a right answer; even if you give someone a chance to sign a release and give consent, there may be times when they don’t know enough about their options to choose.  Certainly a kid from Dharavi isn’t going to have someone negotiating a contract in his or her best interests the way that, say, a Little Miss Sunshine is.  And how much difference does it make whether the resulting work is a marginal indie documentary or a runaway mainstream success?

If nothing else — and it is a lot else — “Slumdog Millionaire” made me go Hmmm.  If you see it, I’d love to know what you thought.

4 thoughts on “Film Review: “Slumdog Millionaire”

  1. I really want to see The Terrorist! I basically agree with you about Slumdog, though I was prepared about the Danny-Boyle-ness of it that you describe (having seen, and liked, Trainspotting.) I was expecting it to be nothing more than a charming, feel-good fantasy, so I wasn’t entirely disappointed. But it was a fantasy with some very brutal and intense voyeuristic scenes, which, however, are somehow part of the whole romantic rags-to-riches-and-love story–this in itself is also disturbing.
    In a way it’s a little like the detestable Crash (though Slumdog is actually more honest in its intent, and less heavy-handed politically), i.e. a movie which enables Hollywoodites to pat themselves on the back and feel good about how not-racist and openminded they are.
    And Slumdog is miles better than Life is Beautiful, which is one of the most pernicious, odious and manipulative movies of all time (argh, I can’t believe you’ve reminded me of that! I wrote a long diatribe when it came out, and was roundly condemned by most of my friends–at the time only very few critics agreed with me!)

  2. My response to the film was that I was absorbed by it until toward the end, when it started to feel silly and manipulative. (The humor in other parts of the film was a bit broad, but I accepted it, perhaps because there was so much horror and violence.) It was hard to imagine that Laktika would have been taught to drive if she were basically imprisoned in her husband’s house. I know we are supposed to think this is the big, romantic Bollywood ending, but given the realism in the rest of the film, it was just too much for me. I confess I did not think too much about how much the child actors were being paid, though I did think a lot about the documentary-style shooting at the beginning. Having never been to India, I wondered if its depiction of the slums was accurate, sensationalized, or white-washed in some way.

  3. Pingback: Minal Hajratwala » Blog Archive » ‘Slumdog’ non-millionaires

  4. It is true what you said and I thank you for exposing the reality of the film. Even though, I consider that this is an outstanding production, it is true that no “slumdogs” become millionaires with these movies. It is the same story in most third world countries. Perhaps the directors that dare to swim in and out of these ghetos, only report one sequence of struggling societies. But it is good for the comfortable audience to taste the reality and take steps to make a change!

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