The colorful, energetic and sometimes exciting Slumdog Millionaire tracks the journey of orphan boy Jamal Malik from the most humble of origins on the mean streets of Mumbai (née Bombay) to one of the center-stage chairs on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. To get there, he has to escape a cruel Fagin who deploys children on the city streets as beggars; he exploits the Western tour groups who long for a glimpse of “the real India”; he endures anti-Muslim hate crimes; and he even suffers the repeated betrayals of his own brother, Salim. Each squalid, traumatic adventure builds up the stolid, stone-faced demeanor with which Jamal faces down India’s answer to Regis Philbin (a delightfully smarmy Anil Kapoor) — Jamal may be uneducated, but his mind is like a steel trap, and his far-reaching experiences have given him the bits of knowledge he needs to answer each of the host’s esoteric trivia questions. The twist is that Jamal isn’t after fame and fortune. Instead, he longs to rescue Latika, an orphan girl he befriended many years ago as a boy and now pines for with the full-blooded longing of a romantic hero, from the clutches of a high-rolling Mumbai gangster.
The three main characters are each portrayed by three different actors at three different times in their lives, from their tender indoctrinations into the ways of the world through their awkward adolescence and finally into young adulthood. The worst horrors of these journeys — we’re talking not just about your garden-variety rape and murder, but the disfigurement and prostitution of children — are briefly confronted but glossed over as the film caroms ahead from episode to episode. Unlike the lurid City of God, which embraced its status as a violent exploitation picture so that its Brazilian street-gang drama might score more visceral points, Slumdog Millionaire is engineered to go down easy.
Despite the fact that it feels completely phony, it’s not a waste of time. Slumdog Millionaire is occasionally chilling and frequently delightful in its artifice, propelled forward not just by its quiz-show framing device (originally provided by Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A) but also by some savvy musical direction. Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography feels in part like another take on the colorful stutter-step abstraction of action that Christopher Doyle made part of the international cinematic lexicon in his work with Wong Kar-Wai, but there are startlingly rich dollops of color in much of the location photography, and even the twinkling noise patterns of the film’s shot-on-video segments seem to grant it a certain unreal, fairy-tale texture. At their best — I’m thinking of the scene where two skinny boys take cover from a rainstorm and look at at the silhouette of the skinny girl crouching in the downpour outside, or the shot of a grown-up Jamal gazing out from his perch high up on a construction site at the gleaming, Vegas-like buildings that in their opulence have erased all trace of the slums where he grew up — the images are both beautiful and haunting.
Director Danny Boyle is no dummy, and he’s mined this territory before — most notably in his junkie fable Trainspotting, which similarly featured a kind of charming rascal coming to terms with piles of money. (In one early scene, involving Jamal’s determination to meet a movie star’s arrival by helicopter, auteurists will no doubt see Boyle’s punchline coming.) He flirts with a criticism of money-centric culture, especially in the film’s opening scenes, in which Jamal — who works fetching tea for employees of one of those call centers outsourced from the English-speaking West — is being tortured by police with a car battery after being accused of cheating on his Millionaire appearance, which is on hold overnight in between live broadcasts. The implication seems to be that moneyed interests hold so much sway in modern Mumbai that the police will happily do the dirty work of a media empire that suspects a humble chai wallah of putting one over on them. (Did the show’s producers think twice about this portrayal before granting the filmmakers permission to make use of their distinctive trademarks?)
And Boyle seems conscious of the status of both himself and his film’s likely audience as ex-colonialist spectators. The sequence set near the Taj Mahal, where the Bombay slum kids take every opportunity to separate wealthy tourists from their cash and their shoes, is mischievously beguiling but also offers comfortable Western viewers a mild scolding, focusing briefly but pointedly on the relatively wide ass of one of the sightseers trotting along behind a rail-thin orphan. But other elements of the film are surprisingly sloppy and underthought. The notion, for instance, of a Millionaire-style game show being broadcast live — and with bathroom breaks permitted during the questioning! — beggars belief. Much worse in the context of a love story is the film’s failure to work up credible chemistry between devoted Jamal and his beloved Latika. Their relationship as young children tugs the heartstrings, sure. Her re-appearance in the film during Jamal’s adolescent years is emotionally plangent, but not as devastating as the story requires. And during the film’s final third, when she re-emerges as a gangster’s moll — she’s essentially the Indian equivalent of one of those housewives from The Sopranos — it’s clear that she has a home life anyone might like to escape from, but there’s no frisson of passion when Jamal shows up to rescue her. As the characters grow older, their passions seem to grow colder — trouble is, the film never ceases its struggle to offer feel-good spectacle. It’s during this stretch of the film that Boyle and his screenwriter (Simon Beaufoy, an Oscar nominee in 1998 for The Full Monty) really miss their marks, and Slumdog starts to become downright dull.
Finally, I’m no expert in Bollywood melodrama, but I do know that if I’m to sit through two hours of this kind of rags-to-riches contrivance and unlikely romantic intrigue, I should expect more than one lousy dance number during the end credits. Stop the action of Slumdog Millionaire two or three times for a humongous musical set piece and you’d have a movie that reveled in its own ridiculousness and wallowed in the easy, foregone conclusion of its love story. Most of the film’s missteps would be forgiven amid a few such blasts of unabashedly fanciful exuberance. Instead, the film is stuck in a not-entirely satisfying middle ground between its aspirations to candy-colored social realism and its destiny as featherweight entertainment for the arthouse-crossover set. But it’s still intelligent, escapist entertainment — and that’s something we all need now and again.