Directors: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Writers: Vikas Swarup (novel); Simon Beaufoy (screenplay)
Slumdog Millionaire, with its narrative tied to a TV game show, was not at all what I expected.
The film has proved popular with American audiences because it follows typical American story-telling themes:
true love conquers all
poor boy makes good (i.e., gets rich)
bad man redeems himself with heroic sacrifice
The overall story, however, is not so beautiful. Although the Indian economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, huge numbers of its people exist in the most abject poverty. Muslims and Hindus take turns killing one another, and, according to this film, the police employ the most brutal tactics, even on children.
Slumdog features three characters who begin the story as children and grow to young adulthood.
Jamal and Salim are brothers whose mother insists they go to school, but while they are still children, their mother is killed in a religious attack. Salim is the elder of the two and feels responsible for Jamal. They survive by stealing, begging, and picking through mountains of garbage. During a terrible thunderstorm as they huddle in a small shelter, the girl Latika begs silently to be admitted. Salim forbids Jamal to invite her in, but Jamal does so anyway. During their short school attendance, Salim and Jamal have heard about The Three Musketeers and that is how the three children come to think of themselves.
Each of the three characters is played by three actors:
Ayush Mahesh Khedekar - Youngest Jamal
Tanay Chheda - Middle Jamal
Dev Patel - Oldest Jamal
Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail - Youngest Salim
Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala - Middle Salim
Madhur Mittal - Oldest Salim
Rubiana Ali - Youngest Latika
Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar - Middle Latika
Freida Pinto - Oldest Latika
Throughout their adventures, Salim is the practical leader, Jamal is the romantic follower, and Latika is a commodity because she is female. At first they subsist by picking through garbage, but then are "rescued" by a man who runs an orphanage. He turns out to be an exploiter of children. He trains them to be beggars and thieves. Some he mutilates in order to render them more pitiable. One boy, who has learned to sing beautifully, is blinded. Salim, who has become the exploiter's star pupil, is told to bring Jamal to be blinded as well. Salim has become hardened, but not so hardened that he would permit his brother to be blinded. The three children flee. The boys succeed in escaping, but Latika is recaptured.
Slumdog Millionaire provides telling criticisms of two subjects that American films rarely criticize:
the mindlessness of the celebrity mystique
the conviction that the "American way" is best for all countries, and that all that's necessary to make other countries similar to the United States is to shower money on them.
The myth of celebrity is deconstructed by an incident that occurs before the boys are orphaned. A famous movie star is about to make a landing in a field near some outhouses. Jamal wants more than anything to obtain the star's autograph, but Salim locks him in the outhouse where he is having a "shy" bowel movement. The only way that Jamal can get to the movie star is by leaping into the lake of excrement beneath the outhouse, which he does. The movie star, whose celebrity depends upon the adulation of the great unwashed public, endures the stench of his fan and signs the proferred piece of paper without any show of disgust.
The second revealing allegory is played out after the boys have escaped and are living on their own. Jamal takes an American couple to see the "real" India. They park their car in a rough neighborhood and while they are exploring, the car is stripped. When the police come, they beat Jamal and the Americans are horrified. The boy tells them that they are seeing the "real" India. The American man pulls a one-hundred dollar bill out of his wallet, saying that they'll show him the "real" America. Jamal gives the money to the boy who was blinded. The irony is that the only person who benefits from the American's money is the criminal who controls the beggar.
Slumdog Millionaire is an intriguing, beautiful, and thought-provoking film that combines a serious cultural message with entertainment. The musical finale on the train platform may seem to have nothing to do with the story, but it expresses the delight welling in the heart of the solemn Jamal who has found happiness after moving dolefully through the film.