Hollywood films about heavy-duty social issues tend to fall into one of two categories: condescending melodramas that appeal to sentimental pre-teen girls (“Crash” and “Blood Diamond”) and truly gut-wrenching films like Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.”
Boyle is masterful at adding a realistic touch to films with fantastical elements, as he has proven with a sci-fi disease in “28 Days Later” and the drug-ridden hallucinations in “Trainspotting.” But the “Slumdog Millionaire” screenplay, adapted from the Vikas Swarup novel “Q&A,” gives an accurate and searing portrayal of life in India’s slums.
The film takes a close look at destitute poverty in the streets of Mumbai (which was coincidentally the subject of terrorist attacks this past week), after Hindu-on-Muslim violence leaves young protagonist Jamal and his brother Salim homeless and orphaned. With more realistic material, Boyle’s camera work becomes twice as intense and disturbing.
The film opens with Jamal, as a young adult (played by Dev Patel), competing on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be Millionaire.” The film’s editors make especially artful use of the show’s crass theme music by contrasting it with images of torture and gun violence. Jamal baffles the policemen and the show’s host with his winning streak of correct answers.
Despite being poorly educated, Jamal is only one question away from wining the grand prize. The film cuts back and forth in time from Jamal’s game show appearance to his interrogation at the hands of the police, following the taping of the show. To defend himself, Jamal explains how he learned each of the answers to the “Millionaire” questions. As a result, most of the film’s story is told through childhood flashbacks.
On paper, it might seem too convenient that Jamal was lucky enough to be asked questions mirroring his childhood experiences. But Jamal’s life has been so brutal that his fairytale-like game-show victory is necessary to keep viewers from feeling like they’ve been kicked in the stomach. And since children are more resilient than adults, the film’s use of a child’s point of view prevents this film from becoming self-important or preachy.
Jamal and Salim are each portrayed by three different actors who subtly establish character development throughout the years. Jamal’s strength comes not just from his necessary physical toughness, but also from his refusal to ever feel sorry for himself. He is kinder than Salim, but not weaker. In this film, cynicism is for the weak and hope against all odds is rewarded with improved survival skills.
No offense to entertaining Oscar Best Picture-winners of years past like “No Country for Old Men” or “The Departed,” but the passionate emotions of “Slumdog Millionaire” just make previous award-winners seem empty and artificially gritty in comparison. Instead, “Slumdog Millionaire” tells a romantic story amid a horrific setting.
When a gruesome film refrains from trying to be edgy or cool, it becomes that much more moving. It’s the same factor of gore mixed with epic movie magic that made “The Dark Knight” so appealing. Batman fans should keep their eye out for the eventual arrival of “Slumdog Millionaire” in Santa Barbara, as it is still only playing in select cities.