You can’t shake it. The feelings of suspense, warmth, anger, sadness, and terror are so strong in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire that I was on a post-film high for hours after the showing.
Our hero is Jamal Malik, a boy from the slums of Bombay. In the first few minutes of the movie, we learn that he is a contestant on India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. His success has the host of the show - Prem (played by Anil Kapoor) - doubting the integrity of Jamal’s answers. After all, how could a “slumdog” answer questions that doctors, lawyers, and professors cannot? Prem hands over Jamal to the police and assumes that a night of torture will elicit a confession of cheating.
But Jamal isn’t a cheater. As the police inspector forces him to explain how he knew the answers, Jamal recounts the relevant experiences from his life. We are given a glimpse into this “bizarrely plausible” tale of a slumdog, who has approached the many joys, adversities, and horrors of his life with courage, wit, and appreciation.
What makes Slumdog Millionaire different from other Dickensian “journey” films is that Jamal’s story is presented with such intense sights and sounds that you are transported to India and are therefore witness to a wide array of imagery unseen on this side of the world.
Boyle’s most ambitious goal and his greatest success are both the fair depiction of India’s many sides. The pain and bleakness of the slums, an unfairly wealthy upper class - often controlled by gangsters and thugs, and more people between these extremes than the population of North America. Sprawling metropolises, vast deserts, pockets of jungle, war zones, and quiet neighborhoods. Vibrant colors, bold smells, a cacophony of city, country, and individual clashing to create a unique portrait of humanity.
Jamal is driven throughout his life by a fairytale love for his childhood companion Latika (Rubina Ali). Theirs is a love challenged by distance, betrayal, and the hopeless gravity of life in the slums. And although the plot is formulaic (a boy in love wins a quiz show to reunite with his soulmate), the drama of the setting is so powerful that it rises above the formula to deliver a profound experience in movie-watching. Every time the movie flashes back to show us more of Jamal’s past, it escapes the formula and taps into the richness of his story.
At least, that’s how I felt about the flashbacks and their value. Some disagree:
Now, for viewers who want to know everything about Jamal’s painful boyhood, the flashbacks present no difficulty. But for others, who are captivated by the drama unfolding in the present - how will he elude the police? What will happen on the quiz show? What will happen if he wins? - every retreat into the past feels like a suspension of the story.
I believe appreciation of Slumdog Millionaire hinges on the cause of this disagreement. If you are interested in the quiz show and feel that Jamal’s past is an annoying departure from the “real story”, then you will either dislike the film or simply find nothing unique in it.
But if you are captivated by the setting - the world created by Jamal’s memories - and you see the quiz show as merely a starting point, then you will leave the theater feeling like you were part of something special. And you might agree with me that this is one of the year’s best films.