Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

It is almost unfair to review this film after having recently read Rohinton Mistry's superb novel, set in Mumbai, A Fine Balance. How can a film (itself adapted from a novel - Vikas Swarup's Q and A) possibly compare favourably with the detail and breadth achievable in a novel of 600-plus pages. It can't. But I'm not sure that I would be waxing lyrical about this film even if I hadn't been spoilt beforehand. I'm going to sound a mite curmudgeonly by raining on the parade of 'the feel-good film of the decade' (a baffling description of a film containing so much misery and violence) but I'm sure Danny Boyle is a bigger man and his film will doubtless pick up at least one Oscar, the Americans clearly having gone for this primary-coloured take on class, hope and the Indian dream.

The first problem is the structure. How did a boy from the slums, who grows up to become a chai-wallah in a call centre get to be on India's biggest game-show facing the 10,000,000 rupee question? How could he possibly know all the answers up to that point, asks the policeman interrogating him on suspicion of cheating. The highly contrived answer is that through his tough life he picked up the answers to the very questions he happened to face. The University of Life is almost beyond the realms of cliché. We also all know the format of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire so for it to be presented as a live show in order to allow the pulse racing climax just adds to the contrivance.

The pulse racing is another issue. There is barely a shot which isn't filmed with the camera tilted to one side or the other. The frenetic cutting and soundtrack is exciting for the films opening scenes of slum children racing through narrow alleyways pursued by police or a great moment when our hero graphically demonstrates his determination to meet his film-star idol. But as the film progresses I found myself wishing he'd just put the camera on a static tripod and let the actors do some acting (this makes me feel that Steve McQueen's Hunger - featuring a 20 minute long single-take may be more up my street). That said, the acting on the whole is fine, especially from some of the children. Dev Patel, the lead, actually doesn't get a huge amount to do except look worried so his nomination for a best actor BAFTA seems a bit generous.

Anyone who has read A Fine Balance will know the complexity of the relationship between Beggarmaster and his charges, something this film fails to even begin to tackle. It's all a bit black and white, goodies and baddies, with interesting relationships like that between the two brothers, or even between Jamal and the gameshow host, not given enough time to be explored and developed. As for the feel-good factor it should be a victory which shows the price paid for it but with the Bollywood dance ending it's a bit like those moments at the end of Shakespeare's comedies when everyone gets paired off and does a country reel, brushing all the untidiness under the carpet. I know I'm going to be in the minority here and perhaps I'm missing the point (this is a filmic film, which transcends reality?) but all too often in seems that a tricksy camera move or effect is preferable to some decent script. It's been made too easy and palatable in order to maximise its appeal, which is why it'll be a huge success but probably won't be remembered in a few years time.


Demob Happy 28 January 2009 at 10:51  

Hi William,

I am not against the central premise of the film, although it would have been better if it had been an imaginary game show and didn't feel like a prolonged product placement for 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' The conceit would have worked for me if the flashbacks had been subtler and less prosaic, particularly in the second half. As you rightly point out, though, it's the filmmaking style that truely grates here: far too hyperactive, too MTV, for someone with a developed attention span.

William Rycroft 28 January 2009 at 13:20  

Product placement is going to become a bigger and bigger issue with films like this and Somerstown being part funded by Celador and Eurostar respectively. My familiarity with WWTBAM, the set, the music, made it feel exactly like an extended advert (although thankfully without Chris Tarrant)

John Self 29 January 2009 at 10:43  

I kind of agree with you on this one, Wm, but I think I liked it a little better. (I went to see it on the recommendation of a very trusted source, who raved about it, so in some sense was bound to be disappointed. Mrs Self and her brother, who accompanied me to see it, both loved it to bits however.)

One point is that I don't think the conceit was that the show was being broadcast live, just recorded 'as live'. He was able to be interrogated before the final question because the show ran out of the time (the familiar siren) after he got the penultimate question right, so the interrogation was happening between recordings.

William Rycroft 29 January 2009 at 11:16  

The 'live' bit I meant was the final section where people seemed to be watching the broadcast of the last question, and the phone a friend denoument, as it happened in real time. But I know I'm being picky here. I think it's one of those films which either catches you up in its wake or doesn't.

John Self 29 January 2009 at 11:34  

Oh yes, I misunderstood you. That's a fair point actually.

DHS 1 February 2009 at 15:52  

Why do you think Americans have gushed so lovingly about the film, but overseas there seems to be a more mixed critical reaction? (Though didn't it just win a boatload of awards in England?)

You can count me as one of the Americans who didn't care for the film.

Love it or hate it, though, it is one of those rare movies that gets everyone talking. I think it will be remembered for a long time, but perhaps not so lovingly.

William Rycroft 1 February 2009 at 16:45  

Hi David. I think that the central rags-to-riches storyline appeals to that very American sentiment that anybody can succeed, whilst conveniently forgetting or glossing over those who fall by the wayside. As I mentioned above there doesn't seem to me to be enough weight given to the cost. If you think of the boy deliberately blinded, when he reappears later he seems content with his own lot when accompanied by the idea of Jamal succeeding in some way - that's a very appealing idea to an audience.

It tries to subvert the idea of what Americans think India is like with the tourist couple scene but in the end I think it depicts India in exactly the way that makes it palatable - bright colours, no shades of grey, and death to the baddies.

Everyone else I know who's seen it though has loved it, so maybe I should just cheer up!

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