Starring: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto
Running Time: 120 minutes
Score: 8 /10
This review by Chris Docker
In his most mainstream movie to date, director Danny Boyle successfully transfers Trainspotting's renowned raw realism of economic deprivation to bustling, modern day India. Colourful and ingenious, Slumdog Millionaire adds that pure warmth of the child's smile to the kick of a curry made from a moneylender's intestines, well-laced with raw spirit distilled from fermented slum-dwellers. Rich and poor come together in an orgy of excess, bolstered with a love-song whose words you barely decipher but whose tune stays in your heart. Boyle has been reborn in Mumbai.
India is a country of inimitable charm. Yet asked to describe what is good, I am usually stuck for words. It's dirty. Corrupt. Unreliable. Disingenuous. It leeches off you like a starving African stealing food at a Band-Aid concert. Oh, and it stinks. Quite literally.
Yet, if you lean your weight against the old buildings near the Taj Mahal, something magical can happen. Somehow it is easy to feel your spirit leave the body. It will flow back through thousands of years of rich and vibrant history. Gandharvas and mythical kings. Back in reality, look up at the monkeys as they scamper across parapets, the sun dazzling you, and Hanuman and Lord Krishna echo from past aeons. Or walk through the mess that is modern Mumbai. Suddenly there's the architectural wonder of the railway station. An incongruently colonial splendour bizarrely appearing in the teeming twenty-first century.
Slumdog Millionaire uses the Taj Mahal and Mumbai Station as iconic reference points, rising from the dirt and chaos. Like the boy dressed as Rama, who pops up early in the film. Timeless and almost mythological. But conflict simmers broodingly beneath such visual wonder. Muslim versus Hindu. Strong versus weak. And Slumdog versus Millionaire. Something says the twain ne'er shall meet, so when a kid from the slums succeeds on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, everyone is suspicious.
On the other hand, unpredictability is the norm in India. The sense of this is so strong it could almost be described as 'spiritual.' Disconcertingly, it is easy to believe that India is a land where miracles could still occur. Even a child of the slums becoming fabulously rich.
The freshness with which Boyle paints the country, the punchy editing and charismatic performances, all conspire against our recognising this is a standard against-all-odds story, a standard rags-to-riches, and a standard do-anything-to-get-the-girl. It is standard pulp. But done so well we barely notice. He has put together a film of surprising maturity, and perhaps his first to win general audiences in a big way. It's a film that uses lessons from Boyle's earlier movies – the gross-out shock value of Trainspotting, the lovable rogues of Shallow Grave, the exoticism of The Beach and the bold visual experimentation of 28 Days Later and Sunshine. It repackages them in feelgood form for all but the most delicate of tastes.
True, the sight of a young boy diving through an ocean of sewage (with filmstar photo held aloft) recalls the stronger images from Trainspotting. But here it is done for humour and too brief to be offensive. Everything about the film is refreshingly clever and a delight to watch. If occasionally there are subtitles, they are inventively inserted at interesting places on the screen with their own background colours.
The plot starts just before the question that lays the golden egg and cuts engagingly back through the boy's life using flashbacks. Why is he being tortured? How did he get on the show? Why doesn't he care about the money? In the background is his love, Latika, whom he has known since childhood. Both orphaned, she saw him by chance (standing abandoned in the rain) and he lets her share a corrugated iron shelter. It's a touching scene without too much sugar. And chance is the theme of the film. How does a Slumdog like Jemal guess the answers to general knowledge questions that could baffle the educated? That's what everybody wants to know.
Few Western directors have managed to embrace India so convincingly. Colours become sanitised, dirt becomes exotic. Boyle leaves us in no doubt as to the degradation, but makes it palatable through daring cinematography. This is no work of realism such as that of Satyajit Ray. Apart from a joyful closing credits scene, neither is it Bollywood. And although I thoroughly enjoyed it, I can't help feeling that some critics have gone overboard in estimating it to be more than the sum of its parts. As if Mamma Mia! could become art-house if it only had had one more ancient artefact. The film has nothing very deep to say. It is entertainment, pure and simple. Boyle's hodgepodge talents have been brought together for once in a recipe that any professional chef should be very proud of. It might even be his best film since Trainspotting, but it is heralds no new frontiers. A rounded display of talent that holds its own against the best in the Hollywood tradition. I would hate to think that the future of British film-making is in India, but I'm pleased Danny Boyle has firmly found his wings again. And I was also very pleased to see one of the stars of the outstanding TV series, Skins, conquer the lead role.
Slumdog Millionaire is a bag of very colourful tricks. The end result is great entertainment. It would be more remarkable if, in a later film, we were to see these stirring skills used for real comment on the human condition (for instance) and take us off the popcorn ride. When will the real Danny Boyle stand up? Near the Taj Mahal, I once looked down and saw boys pretending to levitate a corpse. They wanted tourists to throw money down to them (with a cut, no doubt, for the boy beneath the stretcher). It was all good fun. But made me wonder when the real fakir would appear.