I know it’s about three months after it’s release date, and it’s already picked up the Best Picture Oscar at this stage, but I finally had a chance to see Slumdog Millionaire for myself.
The problem with seeing a film this late is that the hype is already big around it. The one that I probably find most misleading is the idea that this is the “feel-good film of the year”.
There was a time when a feel-good film was a piece of light fluff with a happy ending. While I’ll agree with the happy ending, there’s nothing light and fluffy about this story.
Just in case nobody has heard anything about this film, it tells the story of a boy from the slums who gets all the questions right on India’s “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” on TV. Via flashbacks, we find out how he knew the answers. I don’t need to say any more than that. Watch the film for yourself.
I’m not sure why, but this is now the third Danny Boyle film I’ve seen in recent years (the other two being Sunshine and 28 Days Later . . .). I’m not sure why, but I always find the first hour of his films brilliant, as he sets everything up and then the second hour not quite as satisfying – mainly because you can tell where everything is going to go by the halfway mark.
I’m not sure why, but I was starting to disengage by the halfway mark. But the first hour of this film is astonishing. The slums of India emerge on the screen. No wonder they were complaining about this film in India.
Their normal diet of Hindi Bollywood films – cranked out at a massive rate each year – usually feature stunningly good-looking actors and actresses, in middle to upper-class parts of town, and are designed to be as escapist as possible.
Slumdog borrows some of the Bollywood conventions – their is a romance at the heart of the story that drives it forward, a race-to-the-finish sort of ending and even a dance number for the closing credits. (Though let me tell you, compared to the real thing from a Bollywood film, the actors looked like they were trying to remember their steps more than anything else.)
But as soon as we flashback to little Jamal and his brother running through the slums of (what was then) Bombay, we realise that this is no Bollywood film. No set designer built this. The filthy gutters, the masses of people, and the thousands of precarious buildings that fill the screen are all the real deal. This is the India the Indians are not putting in their own cinema, and it’s taken an Englishman to do it for them.
Ultimately, this is made me not feel so good by the end of the film. The povery displayed was so real and the situations so horrific, that the movie ended up making me feel more concerned over the state of affairs in India more than anything else.
Sure, in the story, one guy from the slums wins the money and gets the girl – but even if that was a true story – it’s just one person. What about all the others, who never get that chance?
I think where the film is strong is that Boyle has crafted a film that opens our eyes to a country that can be easy to glamourise. A very telling moment is when the film shifts to the Taj Mahal. By this stage, we have really seen the underbelly of the nation, but in trot the tourists (the first white people we’ve ever seen), just to take a few happy snaps and be guided by the locals. But they have no idea of what the country is really like.
Boyle has successfully taken us off the tourist trail and shown us the real thing. But the bigger questions remain – how can a nation with that much poverty be helped? How do we turn the dream of overcoming poverty from a movie fiction into something tangible?
4 out of 5.