Directed by Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire" tells a familiar "rags to riches" tale. Its first act consists of several brief anecdotes, Boyle fetishizing the Dharavi slums, portraying poverty as a carnival of colours and soul-deadening action. Shot with the same over-saturation and hand-held work that made the slums of "City of God" and "The Constant Gardener" problematic, Boyle treats poverty as a MTV video.
Of course it's not all fun and games. Mothers die, eyes are gorged out and child traffickers run rampant, but the film glosses over such matters, using them instead for tactical shocks and easy jolts. The reason these scenes, despite their inherent darkness, seem so trite, is because Boyle tries to have it both ways. "Millionaire", regardless of its social probing, is essentially a fantasy. It's a Cinderella story, our heroes rising above the slums by the sheer force of love and destiny, brought together on the set of a television game show, the power of pop culture lifting their dirty bodies from the filth and grime of Dharavi.
We're expected to believe that children are harvested and abused, yet we're also expected to believe in magical happy endings where everything works out. Boyle wants the gravitas of a child watching his mother murdered, but he also wants the expired movie clichés central to a Disney love story.
Toward the end of the film, a gangster cuts Latika's face with a knife. The resultant scar epitomizes "Millionaire". On the surface, we think we're looking at something "real", something "violent". But look closer and see how carefully placed and artfully directed that scar is. It's a single clean cut, perfectly framing the actress's face. It's not an ugly scar. It doesn't protrude or ruin her symmetry. In no way does it obscure her beauty. So while the initial impression is one of shock or even sympathy, the fraud is that it's carefully designed to be pretty. To be easy on the eyes and head. Contrast this with the Indian kids in 2004's "Red Light Kids" or with how the prostitutes are treated in "Unforgiven". It's not pretty when a woman is cut up. Boyle's film is one where he's not being honest about the situation, and the responsibility is on the audience not to think twice.
Worse still is the film's reliance on destiny. What engenders Boyle's happy ending is the underdog's pure heroism, an egotistical lottery mentality, a belief in destiny, and the prodigal brother's heroic martyrdom. Indeed, Salim exists solely to do the dirty work of killing the bad guys so as not to interfere with the moral purity of Jamal. At the same time, it's hard to believe that anything really matters when everything in the film is simply working according to destiny. Apparently it's destined that all the other slum dwellers (who can't get onto a TV game show) continue to live a life of poverty.
The film ends with all of rural India celebrating Jamal's victory as though it were their own triumph. The fact that "one of their own" has become rich elicits an outburst of joy. And this is the film's ideology: anybody can rise out of misery, if they are pure of heart and chosen by fate. Jamal is plucked arbitrarily out of the masses as a symbol. He is a celebration of the culture of the dice, the casino, the lucky ticket.
And so the film ends with a "happily ever after". Our boy and girl embrace before the film erupts into a happy song and dance routine. It's all quite silly. But perhaps Danny Boyle is being ironic, deconstructing the fantasy image and poking fun at Bollywood's avoidance of truth? Or am I watching too much Altman? With this view mind, I gave the film another look. How straight is Boyle playing things?
Consider this: the film travels from the "reality" of poverty to the artificial world of TV sets, Bollywood shenanigans and big money. The narrative then self-destructs, essentially becoming a thoughtless Bollywood dance movie. Brilliant still, the film ends with the line "D: It is written", an allusion to fate, but also implying perhaps that the story is itself fabricated, a screenplay and so profoundly false. Better yet, the entire film is told from the point of view of Jamal, who we know is an imaginative boy and fan of movies. Is it possible that Jamal, like Spacey in "The Usual Suspects", has just narrated a cosy lie to us solely to avoid being punished by the police? After all, Jamal is a known con artist and the plot is too unbelievable, too manufactured, to be true. The characters are too cardboard, too stereotype, too comic book. The love story is too insensible and contrived. Is it possible that Jamal has scammed the quiz program and that the film is a scam on the audience?
But no, Boyle does not seem to go down this route. There's no irony here, no questioning of artificiality, and little inclination that Boyle believes his picture to be anything more than a straight fantasy. A better filmmaker would have probed deeper, undermining the carefully manufactured Bollywood image, but Boyle seems content with his happily ever after.
6/10 – See "Salaam Bombay!", "Los Olividados", "Land of Plenty and "Wendy and Lucy".