Slumdog Millionaire is an extraordinary movie, all the more so for being made by an British director, Danny Boyle, who’d never been to India before he started shooting there, and who spoke not a word of the language. It manages to have an essentially Indian feel to it, while also having the zest of a contemporary Western thriller.
The main character, Jamal, has had a brutal upbringing as a result of being a child of the slums, but has managed to survive and is doing reasonably well for himself. With utter resilience and native cunning, he and his brother have in turn escaped a massacre of their Muslim community by local Hindi, being kidnapped by a so-called ‘orphanage’ which turns the children into beggars – in some cases by purposely crippling them – finding themselves at the Taj Mahal and passing themselves off as guides, and returning to Mumbai, the place of their origin, where Jamal wants to find (amongst the eight or nine million people) the girl they left behind several years before.
Alongside all this back story is the contemporary one in which Jamal is successfully competing in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – India-style. And laid over that is his interrogation and beating because he’s been accused of being a cheat while on the show. Is it destiny that allows him to know the answers to almost all the questions – or is it plain happenstance? Jamal thinks it’s destiny, it seems, and is convinced enough by his faith to push forward against the odds.
I’d got the impression that the film was a comedy – before I went. Yes, it has some comedy moments, but it’s also brutal, vicious, thrilling, heart-stopping and surging with the life of modern India and its recent past. On top of that is the realisation that the old India is rapidly fading: technology is rampant, and everyone who can afford it takes the modern world for granted. And those who can’t afford the modern India, but still have to live in it, carry on in much the same way as they always have – forced to beg, forced to live on the streets, forced to live in slums, abused, treated as of no value, and regarded as if they didn’t exist.
But for all its horrors, the film is also life-affirming: a basic boy-gets-girl plot underlines the whole thing, and the ending is joyfully upbeat. I won’t tell you how it ends, but if Bollywood seems to be being kept at bay throughout the rest of the film, it explodes into the last scene with full force. (Not that it can be kept at bay: the music throughout is vibrant and frenetic and wondrous.)
This is one of those films that just knocks you off your feet.