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Slumdog Millionaire – a chicken tikka masala of a film



Slumdog Millionaire – Danny Boyle

Slumdog Millionaire is like a shot of bad tequila – feels great as it goes down then begins to burn at your gut and eventually makes you feel queasy. ‘Slumdog’, for it already has an abbreviated nickname; is a nice, naïve, pacy little romantic fairytale knocked up inexpensively by Danny Boyle with a largely Indian, entirely non-white cast, a lot of style and more than a dash of Bollywood. Insofar as a sentimental fable set in the slums of Mumbai, with a narrative context of gangsterism and the ruthless exploitation of children, including removing their eyes with a spoon to add to their begging potential can be entertaining it’s fun, I liked it, it made me feel good, I surrender. Well done Danny – you warmed my heart and numbed my brain.

For once, I’ll leave the politics and the ethics to you dear reader having simply pointed out the uneasy ethical paradox not so much of the film itself but the sickly hype of its promotion. They should merchandise it: ‘slumdog’ t-shirts, knife-scarred female figurines, how about a few ‘eye-spoons’? Plastic of course so our western kiddiewinks can’t cut themselves or anything awful like that.

Let’s look at the film. British?! Slumdog is precisely as British as chicken tikka masala – invented in Britain to make Indian cuisine palatable to the notoriously undiscriminating British palate. The dramatic core and power of the film is certainly not in the banal screenplay or latter-day Brothers Grimm storyline. While of course credit must always go to a Director, Slumdog would be nothing without Chris Dickens’ superb editing and Anthony Dod Mantle’s exciting, frequently hand-held cinematography. But the power of this weirdly disturbing film for me lies almost entirely in the extraordinary musical score of A R Rahman. Despite Dickens’ pace and Dod Mantle’s capture of the teeming life and sheer breathtaking colour of Mumbai, it is Rhaman’s score that weaves the film together around urgent pounding drums and sinuous threads of melody.

It is some of the drivel being written about this little film that makes Kate Wlnslet’s Golden Globe acceptance ‘speech’ look understated and erudite.

“Emblematic of the Obama era”, “a British movie whose influence will be felt all over the world”

(David Gritten – Daily Telegraph 13 Jan). I don’t know what Mr Gitten is on but how about his conclusion drawn from this quote from the film (my italics):

“What will we live on?” she asks anxiously in the story’s key exchange.
“Love” he says, simply (sic)
(Gitten) – ‘and in that single word lie the key qualities of Slumdog Millionnaire. It does not have an ironic moment. It is utterly devoid of cynicism. Instead, it is bright-eyed, optimistic – idealistic even.’

Idealistic! Jamal and Latika are in the same social ordure of deprivation and inadequate education when the movie closes as the 7 year-old Jamal is graphically in the real stuff at the beginning of the film. And it is serious-minded, courageous, honourable use of political power that will change that not cockamamie clichés. OK, so I lied about leaving the politics out. I guess it takes a Daily Telegraph journalist to be so entranced by air-headed sentimentality as an answer to an environment of endemic poverty, brutal gangsterism and the religious bigotry that orphaned Jamal in the first place.

Muslims Jamal and elder brother Salim are orphaned when their mother is beaten to death during a violent attack by local Hindus. The two brothers set out on a series of street-urchin adventures initially taking with them to Salim’s chagrin, Latika, a pretty little girl who already shares a special bond with Jamal. Narrowly escaping the brutal clutches of Maman, a kind of Indian Fagin who scoops children off the streets and uses them as beggars and thieves, Jamal and Salim have to leave Latika behind.

Jamal never forgets Latika but he and Salim are driven by the necessity to survive including for a while as hilariously unreliable unofficial guides at the Taj Mahal. When they return to Mumbai looking for Latika they find her being sexually exploited by Maman. They rescue her when Salim kills the gangster. Powerless all his life before the forces around him, Salim feels empowered by the gun and threatens Jamal with it if he doesn’t let Latika spend the night with him as a reward by right as the eldest and their saviour.

The three are split up again when chased for killing Maman. Salim drifts in with Javed another gangster, pleased that Salim has killed his rival. Jamal fends for himself for a while and through a random connection grabs a chance to get on the Indian ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’. Reasoning that Latika might see him on the show Jamal astonishes everyone at reaching the final stages eventually having a go at the 20m Rupee (£280,000) question. The show’s host Prem Kumar having failed to con Jamal into giving a wrong answer accuses him of cheating and has him arrested. Much of the film is told through flashbacks as Jamal tries to explain to the police how a slum kid can know so much. We see how each episode of his adventures gave him knowledge relevant to each of his questions. Eventually Jamal discovers Salim is now a killer for Javed and worse, that Latika is living with the gangster. The final resolution of the conflict between the brothers is suitably melodramatic and you can hardly be in much doubt about the eventual fate of Jamal and Latika given the promotional hype and publicity. The film ends like a cross between an Asian Mamma Mia and a Bollywood musical.

Forget the context and it is good undemanding fun. But the promotional momentum being generated, presumably funded by Celador who financed the film and own the Who Wants To Be A Millionnaire franchise, is becoming daft. Nominating Dev Patel (the older Jamal) a likeable young British actor for a BAFTA is a bit like giving Cliff Richard a lifetime movie-acting award for Expresso Bongo and Summer Holiday. Patel is not even the best ‘Jamal’ in the film – both Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Tanay Chheda as the young and middle Jamals are at least as good. Anil Kapoor is a nicely oily Prem Kumar.

In the end though, Simon Beaufoy’s (The Full Monty) screenplay adapting Vikas Swarup’s book ‘Q & A’ is as banal as the storyline it expresses: and if Beaufoy had any serious agenda in changing the character to Muslim instead of mixed religion as in the book, that agenda is buried under the surface gloss of sentimentality. The explanation of how Jamal knows the answers on the quiz requires a heavy dose of disbelief suspension.

Directors like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach who have to struggle to get their films screened for the odd token week, if at all, by a monopolistic distribution system must have deeply mixed feelings at films like Slumdog receiving not the attention, but the indiscriminate critical acclaim, they do. OK it brings publicity and money into the ‘British’ film industry but these notoriously flash in the pan one-off glitzy films do little to establish a soundly based film industry genuinely and healthily rooted in British culture. As for the under-distribution of European and World films in multi-plexes filled with pap most days – that’s a symptom of the same problem.

Culturally the acid of test of Slumdog is how it plays in India. Though not released there yet I believe test showings have been received well. But then, I believe ‘Allo ‘Allo was very popular in Germany as well.

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