One of Danny Boyle’s greatest gifts as a filmmaker is his keen ability to visually invigorate the most uncomfortable subject matter, from the frenetic ups and downs of heroin addiction in Trainspotting to his high-octane reinvention of the zombie flick in 28 Days Later. His latest, Slumdog Millionaire, is the filmic crystallization of this strength, a movie that plunges viewers into the frightening depths of slum life in present-day India only to hoist them out with a charmingly and knowingly impractical tale of love in the age of globalization.
Slumdog Millionaire follows Jamal (Dev Patel), an orphan who appears on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in hopes of attracting the attention of his rediscovered lost love Latika (Freida Pinto), who is now trapped in the service of the same gangster who employs Jamal’s estranged brother (Madhur Mittal). A police interrogation frames Jamal's narration of his life story, as he explains how he acquired the answers to all the Millionaire questions through myriad experiences as a homeless youth. In visually realizing Jamal’s story, Boyle’s exuberantly expressive camerawork and Anthony Dod Mantle’s rich cinematography illuminate the highs and the lows of slum life: the residents' vibrant camaraderie is rendered with bold colors and sweeping pans, while the neighborhood's lurking dangers are expressed through awkward angles and deep shadows.
The events in Jamal’s life deftly outline the last 15 years of Indian history, the nation becoming increasingly interconnected with the Western world as the protagonist matures. Standard Indian images -- Bollywood and its stars; sectarian violence between Musilms and Hindus; teeming, decrepit urban slums (shot stunningly on location in Mumbai and Juhu) -- make cameos in the retelling of Jamal’s eventful youth. As Jamal grows, the culture that confronts him becomes ever more interdependent with the West, from American tourism at the Taj Mahal to the rise of India as tech-support and customer-service nexus for the Western world. A soundtrack peppered with bombastic tracks from M.I.A., the most recognizable contemporary musical signifier of the emergence of South Asian culture in the West, cleverly underscores the theme of globalization.
At times, Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy tread dangerously close to Forrest Gump territory with their attempt to map history onto the life of a seemingly random cultural outsider. Consequently, they occasionally falter while attempting to navigate the uneasy balance between emotionally uplifting drama and serious social commentary. Most notably, Slumdog takes on more responsibility than it earns with the revelation that Jamal is a Muslim, using a tragic experience from his Mumbai youth as a mere plot device that accounts for his answer to an early Millionaire question. The film fails to contemplate the impact of such a potentially divisive figure skyrocketing to national fame and misses out on a chance to provide the same nuanced perspective to its Western viewers that it chastises its Western characters for lacking.
Yet, contrary to my natural tendency, I cannot criticize Slumdog too harshly for glazing over history and politics. Throughout, it projects a steadfast understanding of its own essential lightness -- not so much ironic detachment as endearing self-awareness. Jamal discovers Latika watching Millionaire and inquires condescendingly, “Why does everyone love this program?” Her simple reply — “It’s a chance to escape” — describes Boyle’s awareness of his film’s place in the cinematic universe, an inspiring diversion for viewers embattled by increasingly grim current events. Later, Jamal’s interrogating officer remarks that the boy’s tale is “bizarrely plausible,” a reflexive nod to the viewer’s own willing suspension of disbelief. When the credits roll, they are intercut with a dance number that astutely fuses classic Bollywood with Western hip-hop style, performed by the film’s romantic leads. This gesture is a perfect summation of the preceding two hours: it emphasizes that the film is primarily dynamic and colorful entertainment and, more subtly, a comment on hybridized culture.
While I initially hoped for a deeper meditation on globalization and economic conditions from Slumdog Millionaire, I cannot disparage a film that is so earnest about its intentions and realizes them so brilliantly. Danny Boyle has produced a film that is charming, but not sappy; joyous, but not grating; the rare feel-good story that is not only bearable, but remarkable.