A “feel-good” romance or a devastating indictment of a system that condemns millions to grinding poverty?
Well, neither actually. This film, which tells the story of Jamal Malik, a kid from the sprawling Mumbai slum of Bandra, may have 10 Oscar nominations, but it ends up very much falling between two stools – a social commentary attempting to locate the situation of Indian slumdwellers within a global context; and an exercise in pure escapism. Unsurprisingly, then, it ends up fully satisfying the devotees of neither genre.
Where does this contradiction come from? Clearly from the transformation of Vikas Swarup’s fascinating and highly successful book Q&A into a Fox Searchlight/Warner Independent Pictures film. The novel (now renamed Slumdog millionaire to take advantage of the film’s success) uses the TV quiz show format to piece together the life of Ram Mohammad Thomas (called Jamal Malik in the film), whose varied and extreme experiences of violence and exploitation, inside and beyond the Mumbai slums, enable him to answer correctly the show’s 12 questions and so win the huge cash prize.
An amazing series of coincidences? Yes, but that is not the point. The point is that the lives of the world’s billions are more and more interwoven. Despite huge differences in their culture and their economic and social circumstances, people across the globe really do encounter similar phenomena and feed on an increasingly common pool of knowledge. So the poorly educated Malik (played by the British actor, Dev Patel) just happens to know which US president is pictured on a $100 bill, which batsman has made the most test centuries and in which UK city Cambridge Circus is located.
However, while in the book the TV show is a device – each of the 12 questions enables the protagonist to relate an episode of his life – in the film it becomes the centre of everything. This is not surprising, since it was Celador, the makers of Who wants to be a millionaire?, who first invited Danny Boyle to make the film. The virtually identical format, presentation, theme music and even studio lighting of Millionaire – the most widely reproduced TV show ever – are familiar to viewers in more than 100 countries, and this factor has been used to appeal to international cinema audiences, particularly in the US and Europe.
In Swarup’s novel the show is not called Who wants to be a millionaire? – and for a very good reason: in Q&A the TV show, far from providing an individual route out of poverty, is an integral part of the whole oppressive system. Who wants to win a billion? will grossly exceed its budget if it is forced to pay out to this nonentity. The owners will be bankrupted. So it is they who stitch up Thomas, accusing him of cheating and ‘encouraging’ the police to charge him with fraud. The film begins with Malik (Thomas) in the hands of the Mumbai constabulary, whose interrogation methods include suspending him from the ceiling and attaching a car battery to his nipples.
But in Slumdog millionaire it is not the programme-makers who call in the police – how could Celador (the original film sponsors, don’t forget) be portrayed as corrupt and cash-strapped? So it is the show’s host (the equivalent of Chris Tarrant, ably played by Anil Kapoor) who for some unexplained reason not only tries to feed Malik an incorrect answer, but has him arrested without the knowledge or consent of the show’s producers – who, needless to say, are delighted that this poor boy is doing so well.
What conclusion is the audience invited to draw from Slumdog millionaire? That the ‘human spirit’ in the end enables us to overcome all adversity? That anyone can ‘make good’? The further Malik progresses on the show, the more he captures the imagination of India’s poor, who crowd round TV sets to see him answer the final questions. There is also another message – things are changing for the better. Towards the end of the film, Malik’s brother, who (somewhat incongruously for that message) has become rich through gangsterism, takes him up a modern building under construction that overlooks Bandra – he points to the slums where they grew up being demolished.
So, despite the talents of Danny Boyle – and certainly the intentions of Vikas Swarup – we are invited to conclude that a combination of individual enterprise, good fortune and trust in the ever-expanding system of capitalism (pity about the current economic crisis) will finally emancipate the oppressed.
But not even the lives of some of the film’s young stars have been transformed. The parents of Azharuddin Ismail (who plays Malik’s brother as a young boy) and Rubina Ali (who plays Malik’s girlfriend as a child) are now complaining that they are still living in poverty in Bandra. It is said that Ismail was paid £1,700, but, according to his father, “There is none of the money left. It was all spent on medicines to help me fight TB” (The Daily Telegraph January 27). The family’s illegal shack has been torn down by the authorities and they now sleep under a tarpaulin. For their part, Boyle and producer Christian Colson say they have set up a trust fund to pay for the education of all the child stars, who will eventually receive a “substantial lump sum”.
To condemn the likes of the well-meaning Boyle and Colson would be pointless. No doubt the kids will be better off in several ways thanks to the film. But the plight of their families illustrates the falsity of the film’s message: there is no individual escape from destitution and exploitation, except for the ones and twos.
That is not to say that the film is without worth – far from it. It does succeed in portraying the squalor and oppression of the Mumbai slumdwellers, even if momentous events like an anti-Muslim pogrom are passed over in two or three minutes. There is some excellent photography, including stunning aerial pictures of the slumlands. The acting – not least of the youngsters – is full of vitality and conviction, even if their attractive appearance and enterprising behaviour occasionally lacks a little credulity.
One final word of advice: do not make the mistake of leaving the cinema once the credits start to roll. It has not finished yet.