By Jimmy So
I met a friend for a drink just after I came out of “Slumdog Millionaire,” and I outlined the plot to him without giving away the ending. “Wait a sec, you mean to tell me that in the beginning you don’t know that he’s won the million bucks? The title’s not exactly keeping that a secret.” I suppose in a literal interpretation, the inclusion of the word “millionaire” would mandate that the "slumdog" Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) ought to win the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” But titles also come in the form of the vague, the ironic, the satiric, and even the outright absurd. We need not know to which category “Slumdog Millionaire” belongs to except to recognize that it is a good title: the film is as peppy as a puppy and fantastical as a millionaire-dream.
“Slumdog Millionaire” opens with the misstep of Jamal being tortured by a police inspector (Irrfan Khan)—frankly, Patel looks more stoned than mutilated, but apparently America is not the only country fond of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The police accuse Jamal, an uneducated 18-year-old orphan who grew up in the slums, of cheating in “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” He is one question away from 20 million rupees, but before that final multiple choice the show propitiously runs out of time and takes a one night recess, while a billion and a half hardly affluent Indians ironically and fervently wonder if the rich-poor gap can widen just enough for Jamal to squeeze through.
Jamal, of course, is busy getting tickled by electric shocks, but he doesn’t have a confession—he has flashbacks. He explains how he has come to know the answer to each of the question, and in the process serves up the ultimate rebuke to pedantry—a rich and eventful life has provided him with esoterica that might just happen to appear on a bad but very lucrative quiz show. His first explanation is a giggle. Asked to pick out the name of a Bollywood star, Jamalrecounts how, as a kid, he crawled through feces three feet deep just to get the autograph of the superstar.
Next he tells of how his mother is killed in the 1992-93 Hindu-Muslim riots (a rather incongruous explanation of another answer lies in this episode), and Jamal befriends a waif named Latika—on the other hand, Jamal’s brother, Salim, seems to have something against her. The three of them are trained by a sinister gang to beg for money, but they escape, only that Salim leaves Latika behind. Why does Jamal know that Benjamin Franklin is on the U.S. 100-dollar note? Because, looking for Latika, Jamal reunited with a fellow slumdog who was not so lucky as the Maliks and had by then become a blind beggar, and he asked Jamal to look at who’s on the currency to confirm that it was a Benjamin. He knows the inventor of the revolver because Salim used a Colt pistol to help Jamal rescue Latika. You get the idea.
Surely you know the trajectory of this tried and true story, but the fact is that you don’t know if Jamal gets the last question right until the end of the film, regardless of what the title suggests. There is ample suspense to captivate an audience—twenty million rupees are clinging onto one of four possible answers to a multiple-choice question. The title sequence, itself tied to four answer choices, might give something away, but does it even matter?
The opening title card reads: “Jamal is within one right answer of winning the game show, so how did he get here?” The letter they want you to pick is “D: It is written.” Simon Beaufoy wrote the script, based on the novel Q and Aby the Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup. I wager that the two men are familiar with “Lawrence of Arabia”—the writing’s in the sand, surely, in the life of T. E. Lawrence, a man so driven to defy everything before him he only makes sense of his actions later. In the famous desert scene so engulfing you can taste the granules in your mouth, Gasim, an Arab fighter, fell off his camel unnoticed during the night, and O’Toole’s Lawrence seizes the opportunity like a serpent spotting Eve, and against the advice of the Bedouins, turns back to look for him in the endless Nefud Desert. “Nothing is written!” Lawrence snaps at them; he manages to rise above not only the Bedouins but the desert and destiny as well, saving Gasim—but the sand has the last word, and later Lawrence personally shoots Gasim to prevent a blood feud among his fighters. The plot twist suggests the decisive victory of fate—after all, where would mythmaking be without it? Nevertheless let us be reminded that Lawrence was not above little contrivances himself, and if anything is writtenheis likely to have written it, and made it all up if he can help it.
“It is so contrived!” is the complaint I hear most often about “Slumdog Millionaire.” But what do you expect—a film executively produced by fate? Or will you settle for a movie contrived by standard human beings? Once upon a time, movies were manufactured products of entertainment filled with set pieces to be devoured and enjoyed. Flights of fancy weren’t always results of dream sequences or signs of magical realism. You took the cosmic amusement of yesteryear Hollywood in stride. They used to manufacture flights of fancy not with expensive CGI but the old fashioned way, by taking a cute but implausible turn in the plot. Not all films are miracles of realism in the natural rhythm of life. And if you rightly anticipate that I take the view that they don’t make them like they used to, I am unabashed about my romanticism for the spirit of the Golden Age.
Who else shares my fondness for supple storytelling, of bending reality to one’s liking? After a late-night layover in a Calcutta motel watching a Dharmendra (the Burt Lancaster of Bollywood) doubleheader with two Indian mates I consider brothers, and a subsequent in-flight entertainment featuring 2006’s “Om Shanti Om,” (only one of the biggest grossing Hindi films in history, an Indian redux of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Phantom of the Opera”) I can say that the subcontinent of South Asia still has a good appetite for unblushing cinematic thrills worthy of the exclamation “That’s Entertainment!” The Tinseltown of the1920s to 1950s has immigrated to Mumbai, studio system and formula and all. In making “Slumdog Millionaire,” the British director Danny Boyle not only pays homage to the sari and mehndi, but he takes on the very spirit ofwhat a movie out of India might feel like.
StartFragment“Slumdog Millionaire” has the look of neon worship, a love for the vibrant urban life found in the best Taiwan and Hong Kong films but absent in American cinema since the gentrification of the Big Apple. Megalopolises are both beautiful and dangerous. Heroes survive by running past colorful lights, getting lost in the downtown maze, and they are rewarded with the temporary relief of having been rescued by a city. The best part of "Slumdog Millionaire" is the last—a full Bollywood dance number on the platforms of a train station, involving almost the entire cast. American cinema has long averted its eyes from such frivolities. It is written that the direction of film is to go another way, but in our return to Depression-era economics can we not find the time for a short reunion with Depression comedies in all their confounding, twisted paradoxes, and hope, once again, that a slumdog can indeed become a millionaire? ♦