During the opening credits of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, the film’s title is splashed across the colourful, ragged t-shirt of a tiny Indian boy playing cricket outside his slum, in a frozen second before he throws the ball. The action speeds back up again, the batter hits the ball, and immediately we’re flung into the middle of the dirt, noise and energy of the slum child’s world, all fast cuts and breathless running and gleeful Indian music. An odd contrast to the sickly yellows of the brief scene of police brutality that precedes it.
This wonderful, chaotic film starts as it means to go on. The story is based loosely on the book ‘Q & A’ by Vikas Swarup, and tells the tale of a poor boy from the slums, Jamal Malik, who grips the nation of TV watchers by reaching the final question of the Indian ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’. Close to winning 20 million rupees, Jamal is taken to be interrogated by police, who believe he is cheating. Each correctly-answered question prompts a flashback to Jamal’s childhood that shows exactly why he knows the answer. We see Jamal and his brother Salim escape a Muslim riot, join a gang of child-beggars with the Fagin-like Maman, escape to work and steal from the crowds at the Taj Mahal, and eventually separate as Salim becomes a gangster and Jamal a chai-wallah at a busy call-centre. All the while Jamal is trying to track down his childhood sweetheart, Latika, who was left behind as the brothers escaped from Maman.
The attention to detail in this film is astonishing. Relentlessly upbeat and energetic, it still doesn’t shy away from showing the filth, squalor and brutality of the slum alongside the money-obsessed hive of activity in the booming technology industries. Depictions of India usually focus on one or the other, but in reality both coexist quite happily on each other’s doorsteps, and it’s good to see both given equal attention. A third of the film is in Hindi, with brilliantly original subtitles, and the child actors are perfect.
Two more points for praise: the soundtrack, which is just right, and that fantastic Bollywood dance number set in the train station during the end credits. Danny Boyle (the director) deserves every award thrown at him.
I did feel that perhaps the plot was a little too contrived – the happy ending was signalled a mile off, which did mean that the boys never felt in any real danger. I couldn’t help thinking that there were plenty of people in India who are born in slums and live and die there without ever going on magical train journeys or being reunited with lost loves sold into prostitution. Still, everyone I saw during my brief stay in Chennai was bizarrely cheerful considering their circumstances, so perhaps the tone of the film is not so far off after all. And if rickshaw drivers can win Pop Idol (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/7699861.stm), why can’t slumdogs win Millionaire?
Go see it. It’ll cheer you up for days.