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Game of Life: Slumdog Millionaire
Reviewed by Danyl Mclauchlan
Slumdog Millionaire is adapted from the novel Q & A by the Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup. I picked up a copy of Q & A late last year after the film received ecstatic reviews in the US and UK, partly because I like Indian literature but mostly because I relish the opportunity to be that jerk at the dinner party who sneers at popular movies because they’re vastly inferior to the original book.
Slumdog Millionaire transcends its source material; it’s a lot better than Q & A. Director Danny Boyle and author Simon Beaufoy keep the central concept of the book in which Jamal Malik, an uneducated urchin from the Dhravi slum wins a fortune in a game show by answering twelve questions correctly. He’s accused of cheating, arrested and tortured; to convince the police he really knew the answers he must tell them his life story, key moments of which revolve around the solutions to the quiz questions.
What’s missing from the movie are the book’s wildly improbable adventures (many of which involve sinister gay men trying to deflower the hero and his friends). As westerners Boyle and Beaufoy realise that the reality of modern-day India is mind-blowing enough without embroidering it with hordes of fearsome paedophiles and besides, the basic plot is unlikely enough to start with. (Salman Rushdie has criticised the movie for being unconvincing, protesting “It just couldn’t happen”. For the record, the hero of Rushdie’s first book Midnight’s Children is telepathic.)
The simplified plot follows Jamal, his troubled brother Selim and their friend Latika from the slums of Mumbai to lucrative careers robbing tourists at the Taj Mahal in Agra, and then back to Mumbai where they become involved in the cities notorious criminal gangs. The children are played by three different sets of actors at different ages. This always risks breaking the suspension of disbelief but the film is so well cast, the actors so gifted and their directors so accomplished that the transitions are never clumsy or confused.
On a technical level the film is flawless. Boyle and his co-director Loveleen Tandan have cited films about the Mumbai underworld (Satya by Ram Gopal Verma and Deewaar by Yash Chopra) as influences; the work of Hong-Kong director Wong Kar-wai is obviously another source of inspiration – the visual style of Slumdog Millionaire is an extended homage to Chungking Express. The soundtrack is another of the film’s highlights; it’s hard not to love a movie that plays M.I.A’s ‘Paper Planes’ while the heroes are railway surfing through the deserts of Rajastan.
A third of the film is in Hindi, some of which is subtitled while most of the rest is unprintable (the term mahder-chod makes a frequent appearance; Mahder means ‘Mother’, chod means exactly what you think it means.)
Slumdog Millionaire has attracted criticism in India, some of the issues are grave (two of the child stars in the film are still living in makeshift shacks in the slums of Mumbai), while other allegations are harder to take seriously (lawsuits have been laid against the film’s music composer on the grounds that his movie promotes the ‘western stereotype’ that there is poverty in India). Boyle and his producer have scrambled to set up charities and trust funds to help his child actors and the residents of the slums that appear in the film.
I suspect the residents of Mumbai’s slums will find their own way to profit from their new-found fame; the city of Udaipur in North India is filled with touts offering the ‘James Bond tour’, because the city featured in some scenes from Octopussy 25 years ago.
Slumdog Millionaire is better than the book on which it’s based. It’s also better than Octopussy. It’s not a Great Film but it is a delightful one.
» Danny Boyle | UK/USA | 2008 | 120 min | Featuring: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla, Rajendranath Zutshi, Freida Pinto, Irfan Khan. In English and Hindi with English subtitles. In Theatres Now.