A teenage romance is perhaps not the project you would link with British director Danny Boyle, who set his career in motion by way of films with grit and criminal tendencies, such as Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. A decade on though, and his lighter side is starting to prevail. No sooner had he brought humanity to a standstill in 28 Days Later, Boyle took a u-turn with Millions, the sweet and well-executed story of a young boy from a hard-up British family who finds a bag full of cash, and his reaction to this sudden blessing. Now, sticking to the youngsters with money theme comes Slumdog Millionaire; a love story based around a popular TV quiz show and set far from his northern English roots, in Mumbai, India.
Opening with a forceful police questioning, we meet Jamal Malik, a seemingly normal 18 year-old who has grown up as an orphan and in poverty. When he suddenly finds himself a single question away from winning the top prize – 20 million rupees – on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”, the police are called in to find out how he is cheating. But is he cheating? As Jamal is interrogated about the answers to each question, he reveals a life full of struggle, loss, and some humour. Each story he tells fills in another game show answer, while threaded through each tale is his quest to find Latika, the young love whom he has since lost. Despite being on the cusp of great riches, Jamal seems unfazed by his position. He’s still hiding something – the real reason for appearing on the game show.
It’s the kind of premise you can imagine being set in the comforts of regional England, and yet it is the brutality and unimaginable turmoil of India that really makes this story come alive. Although based on ‘Q&A’, a book by Vikas Swarup, the film version could be seen as a gamble; as it is, being located and shot in Mumbai, and using fairly unknown actors, Slumdog Millionaire won’t be the easiest sell come release time. But what that elaborate dice-roll does here is to open the film up to a much deeper level of storytelling.
The story structure itself, is inspired. After a disarmingly brutal opening interrogation sequence, we gradually learn Jamal’s life story through a simple step-by-step process. As each chapter in his life explains the seemingly impossible answer to another quiz show question, the audience learns of the boy’s plight along with the police inspectors probing him. Even as a convenient break in the back-story, the TV show segments rarely get in the way of our connection to the characters, which is something screenwriter Simon Beaufoy has smartly balanced, along with some realistic dialogue and characterisation that builds consistently throughout the film.
The worst thing that can be said about the story is that it falls into the trap of being a little overly dramatic towards the end. For every neatly placed twist in the quiz show reality of Jamal’s life, the wrap-up to his brother Salim’s story is maybe an unnecessary theatrical step too far. Still, the performances throughout are spot on, as Dev Patel plays the oldest incarnation of Jamal with heartfelt honesty. Meanwhile, fellow actors Madhur Mittal and Freida Pinto effectively inhabit Jamal’s brother and the much sought-after girl of his dreams, respectively. Plus there are strong adult performances by actors plucked from Bollywood, such as Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan.
There is no doubt that Slumdog Millionaire is a love story, and as sure as the sentimentality is straight out of a Disney film, the film’s aesthetic approach is more like a Bourne movie. So frequently are we thrown into a slum-set chase sequence, that it almost begins to feel like all the film is destined to do is take us on a blinking back-street tour of Mumbai’s most financially instable areas. If there is one criticism of the film, it’s that too many of Jamal’s early tales end up this way, and even when set to booming Indian music, the energy wears off after a while. Luckily, we are blessed with a second half that, while not exactly calmer, suffers from less ADD.
Adding greatly to a tone which has its feet firmly on the ground is the camera work that, in traditional Boyle style, could be described as ‘fast and loose’. His cameras don’t always appear poised; rather, they catch the action as it happens, and if they can. With so much going on, it is likely to be the work of great planning, and yet you barely feel the presence of a camera during either the fast-moving chases, or the stationary conversations. Giving the film some added energy when required is editor Chris Dickens, whose credits include the quick-cutting style present in Edgar Wright’s Spaced and Hot Fuzz.
Currently receiving unanimous praise, Slumdog Millionaire could in fact turn out to be Danny Boyle’s first proper courtship with the awards podium since the mid-nineties. The film has already netted him the Toronto International Film Festival People’s Choice award as well as Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s ‘Best Director’ accolade. More are sure to follow, but in the meantime it’s well worth catching this ambitious and relatively low budget offering from the British director. If there was ever question over whether a Bollywood style love story could meet Hollywood inspired cinematics, it has already been well answered by hugely positive festival reviews. But just to be sure, use your ‘ask the audience’; they’re all saying the same.No tags for this post.