Garnering five Golden Globe nominations and a fair share of Oscar buzz is the underdog tale Slumdog Millionaire.
The film is being touted as a front-runner for Best Picture at this Sunday’s Golden Globe award show and for the Academy Awards, whose nominations will be announced later this month. Like the films Rocky (1976) and Chariots of Fire (1981) have proven, the academy loves an underdog for Best Picture. But I would argue that Slumdog is not quite in that league.
It tells the story of Jamal, (played as an adult by Dev Patel) a young man who is orphaned at age 10, and must fend for himself alongside his “loyal” brother Salim (played as adult by Madhur Mittal) in the dangerous slums of Mumbai, India. Through a lucky coincidence while working as a chai-wallah (a person who serves chai, a milk tea popular in India), Jamal ends up applying to appear on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
It could obviously be his means of emerging from the Mumbai slums, but he has other intentions in mind by appearing on the show. The film opens at the point when Jamal is literally at the threshold of greatness. He obviously wants to be a millionaire and the film makes clear the stakes involved with answering the next question.
Then the film abruptly cuts to an interrogation, where security question whether he has been cheating on the show. Jamal forcefully declares his innocence, even following electro-shocks. Finally, after punishment that would have probably killed lesser men, the investigators allow Jamal to explain how he was able to answer the shows tougher questions despite having little formal education.
The film then settles into a time-shifting narrative where scenes of his horrid journey through Mumbai and his initial meeting with sweetheart Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto) are intercut with scenes of his interrogation and from the game show hot seat. This style leads to some wonderful moments.
My favorite scene is the one when a young Jamal is locked in an outhouse by a friend when his favorite actor visits his town and must find a way out as he tries to get his autograph. The scene manages the tricky maneuver of being subversive, sweet, irreverent and funny all at once.
I also enjoyed the scene when young Jamal and Salim find themselves in a dangerous position when a group of senior slumdogs seek to use the duo for their own devices. The scene manages to be both harrowing and suspenseful, and it unblinkingly reflects the level of risk involved in living in the slums as a child. But the “flashback style” also presents problems for viewers. Because we see the events of Jamal’s poverty-stricken past occurring prior to his appearing on the game show, very little suspense can build since the audience already knows that things will get better soon.
It’s like splicing scenes of a man getting dumped with him finding the love of his life the very next week. It would be hard to empathize with his pain of rejection if we already know he’d headed for a sunny aftermath.
For all intents and purposes, the natural progression of the film’s events should have developed from his childhood in the slums to him finding employment to him appearing on the game show. But with the film essentially told as a love story and fairy tale, director Danny Boyle never wants any of the film’s grim turns to allow us to forget his “love conquers all” theme.
In the end, I would give a mild recommendation to Slumdog Millionaire because it is well-acted, well-written, and the ending will certainly leave many contemporary audiences satisfied. However, I feel that the film’s style gets in the way of its substance.
That left me feeling as though the ending was more the work of the director than the story’s own sense of destiny.