In a Danny Boyle film, it seems, it’s always about the money, and it’s never about the money. From Shallow Grave to Trainspotting, from A Life Less Ordinary to Millions, a big bag of money, or the prospect of one, proves a key turning point in the lives of Boyle’s characters, and variously reveals their venality — or their virtue.
Slumdog Millionaire is about one of the good ones. There’s no literal bag, but the film opens with Mumbai orphan Jamal Malik (played as young man by Dev Patel) within one question of winning the big prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? How did an uneducated child of the slums know the answers to all those questions about Indian and world culture? A. Did he cheat? B. Is he lucky? C. Is he a genius? Or D. is it written?
Don’t ask to use a lifeline. If anyone needs one, it’s Jamal. Violently orphaned during the Bombay Hindu–Muslim riots of the early 1990s, taken in by an underworld monster (Ankur Vikal) who trains children as beggars and maims them to maximize their earning potential, sundered for most of his life from his increasingly delinquent brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and from Latika (Freida Pinto), the girl-woman he barely knows but loves faithfully, Jamal just might dissolve all his life’s problems with a single word, indeed a single letter — if he can get through an evening of torture by police who believe he must be cheating.
Directed by Danny Boyle (Millions, Sunshine), Slumdog Millionaire uses the questions and answers of Jamal’s game-show appearance as a hook to illuminate the tribulations of his hardscrabble life and the teeming, tumultuous city he lives in, but also to set the stage for a turning point that’s less about money than about love.
Celebrated by fans as the “feel-good” film of 2008 and damned by skeptics as “poverty porn,” Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire is, I think, neither of these. It’s a wrenching fairy tale, a yarn rife with desperate want, loyalty and love, a fable of the vagaries of life that are often cruel but sometimes unexpectedly, sublimely kind.
With his brother Salim, Jamal is reduced to petty thievery and scamming tourists. Unlike Salim, though, Jamal retains something of the childhood innocence and single-mindedness that once led him as a young boy to escape from a locked outhouse by plunging into a mountain of raw sewage, all to meet his hero, Bollywood icon Amithab Bhachan, and get an autographed photo — a photo that Salim later sells.
With similar purity of heart, the grown Jamal loves Latika, not for the unknown woman she is, but for the girl he remembers from childhood on the streets, whom she will always be to him. Latika herself could go either way: Like Salim, she’s capable of leaving behind the innocence of childhood and accepting the cruddiness of the world she lives in, an underworld that commodifies her sexuality as Salim commodified Jamal’s prized photo. But somewhere deep down is a little girl that Jamal can still reach, as he can no longer reach the little boy that no longer exists in Salim.
Still, it’s a mark of Boyle’s humanism that even Salim is seen as a semi-sympathetic tragic figure rather than a mere thug. (Major spoiler warnings.) Though a gangster, Salim kneels every day toward Mecca to say his prayers, and is ultimately willing to put his brother’s happiness above his own life. At the same time, Salim himself is no longer capable of simple happiness, and makes his squalid last stand confessing the greatness of Allah, but literally immersed in the money he chose to follow.
In a way, Salim’s last stand recalls Jamal’s stomach-churning outhouse escape — a scene that, as the echo suggests, is more than a shocking set piece, or even a dramatization of Jamal’s pluck. It’s the ultimate metaphor for purity of heart, for being in unedurable circumstances but not of them. Jamal literally swims through offal, but he doesn’t succumb to it. Part of him doesn’t even see it. He just sees escape. It’s the same with the Millionaire jackpot. For him, it was never about the money.
Jamal’s outhouse escape, as Teresa Wiltz (The Root) notes, echoes a sickening scene in Trainspotting in which Ewan MacGregor’s drug-addicted Renton plunges into an appalling public toilet in pursuit of lost opium. That scene illustrates the abjectness of Renton’s degradation. For Jamal, it’s just the opposite. A pile of feces, a pile of money — it’s all the same in the end.
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From your article titled 2008: The Year in Reviews I gather you aren’t very fond of Slumdog Millionaire very much. I would like to know what are your reservations concerning this film.
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