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Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is one of those slyly successful movies — Casablanca is perhaps the classic example — that no amount of summarizing can capture, because the secret ingredient is actually a blending of genres. Casablanca tells a suspenseful tale of wartime espionage, but it is also a great love story. Because it works to resolve the espionage story in a favorable way, the renunciation at the end is unusually powerful, all the more so in that Humphrey Bogart walks off into the desert instead of succumbing to the guillotine. Slumdog Millionaire , which also has a happy ending that depends on renunciation, combines two even more disparate genres, the raw documentary and the fantasy ordeal.
In the fantasy ordeal, the hero-contestant is asked a series of questions that will settle his fate, and he knows, or guesses, the correct answers. The implausability of his success is usually buffered by the implausability of the ordeal in the first place. The ordeal in Slumdog Millionaire, however, is utterly plausible: it's a modern-day television game show. This ought to highlight the unlikeliness of the hero's triumph, but by the time Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) wins, we are no more interested in verisimilitude than the most unlettered Bollywood audience. Precisely by wielding the powers of documentary filmmaking with canny finesse, Danny Boyle is able to grab our hearts and override our minds. The film ends with something like a cinematic orgasm of half-anticipated satisfaction: we want what happens to happen, and we don't much care how it happens. Slumdog Millionaire makes us as shameless in our moviegoing as its troupe of Indian Muslims is about survival.
The exposition is massively wrinkled at first, but the effort of making sense of it has the same endearing effect that smoothing out crumpled wrapping paper has: having gone to the trouble, one has made an investment. It gradually emerges that every question posed by the slick game-show host (Anil Kapoor) triggers a pivotal memory that explains why Jamal knows the answer. Why does he know the name of a famous, but somewhat faded movie star? Because there was only one way to get to actor's autograph: through the wrong end of an outhouse. Why does he know which famous Indian poet wrote a much-loved Hindu song? Because he was forced to sing it as a child by the horrifying operators of the bogus "Hope Orphanage."
If you have ever flown over Mumbai with Google Maps, or read Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games — just to suggest two ways of knowing — you'll be aware that the slums of Mumbai are not confined to the city's outskirts. They occupy swathes of undeveloped ground that abut luxury condominiums. Temporary townships of improvised shacks, they house the millions of immigrants who pour into Mumbai from the countryside, usually under the protection of gangsters who enable the illegal connections to power and water. Jamal and his older brother, Salim (played by Madhur Mittal as an adult), are "slumdogs" who live in a Muslim basti until they are orphaned in an anti-Muslim riot that takes their mother's life. Huddled under a tin roof in the rain, they see a girl standing in the downpour. Jamal wants to ask her to join them, but Salim is unsentimental. Jamal wears him down, and Latika (Freida Pinto, as an adult) is allowed to sleep alongside Jamal. Thus begins the triangular story of divided alliances and loyalties that will blossom, carefully nurtured by Danny Boyle's knowing hand, into a great love story. Jamal's ordeal on the game show is entirely subordinate to the ordeal of his winning the grown Latika's hand as well as her heart.
The mad frenzies of the television studio, with lights and crowds and cameras that crane about like latter-day Star Wars robots, therefore very strangely provides the respite, the comic relief, at first from harrowing scenes of hand-to-mouth living, and later from Salim's descent — which he, of course, takes as an ascent — into organized crime. Somewhat past the film's midway point, we are also spared another, this time unpleasant, ordeal of Jamal's. Thought to be cheating after his successes in the game show's first round, Jamal is bundled off to jail, where he is tortured until his skeptical interrogator (Irfan Khan) is convinced that he has done nothing wrong. Bound to horrifer Western viewers, this experience rolls right off Jamal's back: acceptance of second-class status has been pounded into his bones. But we forget this as well during the shots of small crowds, their eyes glued to television sets as Jamal advances toward victory, that punctuate the climax of the film. That a Muslim seems likely to walk off with the grand prize appears to spark not a chirp of sectarian protest. In actual India, one fears, the show's studio would be barricaded by demonstrators.
I have never seen a Bollywood film, so I can't say that the music-video finale echoes traditional film-making in any particular way. That it is there at all seems to be some sort of cheeky tribute to the requirement that Indian movies feature lots of singing and dancing. It has the same effect as a good stretch after running, ensuring that the glow of a grand emotional workout is not disturbed by spasms of importunate doubts about plausibility. (December 2008)
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press