Slumdog Millionaire

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(332)

Director Danny Boyle; Release date: 9 January

Jamal is one question away from winning India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire when the klaxon sounds and "that's all they've got time for". His anxious wait for the show to resume is helped little by the police throwing him in jail. How can a "chai wallah" (tea maker) from a call centre have got further on the show than any lawyer or army major without cheating?

Connected up to a car battery he is "interrogated" throughout the night. The show is replayed to him and question by question he is asked to explain how he could possibly know the answers. Each answer has been ingrained in Jamal's memory by turning points in his incredible young life. His story is told as he retraces the questions of the show.

This story is of Jamal, his brother Salim and the love of his life, Latika. The brothers are orphaned when their mother is killed in an anti-Muslim pogrom. They are forced into an orphanage and soon end up begging, and involving themselves in petty crimes and scams in order to escape from their predicament. There are some harrowing scenes, some of which are quite graphic, but it is always transfused with a boundless optimism. This is a modern fairytale.

Danny Boyle directs a relatively unknown cast speaking a third of the film in Hindi, and shooting on locations in Mumbai that were devastated by terrorist attacks a year later. This is also the tale of a city that's developing at break-neck speed creating a few millionaires, but also millions of deprived families, sprawled out in the massive tinder slums. These are the slumdogs.

Comparisons to Charles Dickens have been made and are not wide of the mark. There are obvious parallels between modern Mumbai and Victorian London. The cruelty and greed of those in authority are exposed, as are the spirit and refusal to give up of the vulnerable.

Jamal at one point asks of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, "Why does everyone love this programme?" Latika replies, "It's a chance to escape, to walk into another life." That dream could come true. Jamal is on the cusp of escape.

There's a danger inherent in this film that in trying to transcend brutal realism it causes an ambivalence and detachment from its audience and the gravity of the subject matter. I think on the whole it works the other way round. By clinging to the hope of escape it presents new audiences with the problems of Indian society, but doesn't send them into despair.

Karl Marx said of Dickens that he had "issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together". This film is in that same spirit.