“Slumdog Millionaire” is well-done but a bit hollow

By by Andres Miguel

‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ director Danny Boyle’s latest film effort, is a stunning cinematic… ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ director Danny Boyle’s latest film effort, is a stunning cinematic example of a cliche straight out of politics: the exquisitely delivered but hollow message. ‘Slumdog,’ the story of Indian orphan Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) and his nearly life-long romance with fellow orphan Latika (Freida Pinto), is unique in its main storytelling device: a game of the Indian version of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ featuring Jamal as the challenger. Beyond being clever and unconventional, structuring the film around such a widely recognizable game show gives viewers the ability to enter Jamal’s impoverished life with ease. The film begins near its eventual end. Jamal is a single question away from the grand prize when the show suddenly ends for the night and he is inconspicuously arrested under suspicion of cheating. During the interrogation, Jamal reveals that, despite being an uneducated slum-dweller (known, of course, as a ‘slumdog’) with a menial job, each question has simply happened to relate back to a traumatic, defining moment in Jamal’s life that gave him the knowledge to answer correctly. The flashbacks to these moments make up the bulk of the film, revealing Jamal’s tragic past and eventually the current situation ‘- that he only went on the show to deliver a message to Latika, who he cannot find, and that he never intended to win money. It simply seemed fated that he would succeed. Unfortunately, that phrase ‘- and the idea of fate as a controlling power, in general ‘- quickly becomes the main theme of the film and divorces all the characters from any agency they might have had. The deus ex machina in this film is overwhelming and distracting, from the fated ‘Millionaire’ questions to the myriad coincidences in Jamal’s life leading to Latika’s frequent appearances and disappearances. Fortunately, the superficial aspects of ‘Slumdog’ are beautifully crafted. The imagery and atmosphere are a combination of an exuberant Bollywood color palette with the grainy, realist cinematography of a gritty drama. The acting is superb from all of Jamal’s and Latika’s incarnations over their history, and the music is appropriate and well-used. Even the telling of the story is fantastic ‘- the present-moment frame story surrounding Jamal’s past never incites confusion, and the pacing is restrained and effective despite the copious use of flashbacks. However, Boyle (director of ’28 Days Later’ and ‘Trainspotting’) seems to lose his thematic thrust in the telling of such an uplifting and sentimental story. While the glimpses into the poverty of modern-day India are certainly affecting, the film never rises above just being a retelling of events, chiefly because of the strong influence of ‘fate.’ There seems to be an implication throughout the film that Jamal somehow deserves to win millions and be with Latika simply because he suffered so much throughout his life ‘- and indeed seems to be the only reason why the film resolves the way it does. It is especially uncharacteristic of Boyle to lean so heavily on such basic themes in light of the complexity of his previous works ‘- the terrifying look at the monstrosity of humanity in ’28 Days Later’ being one example among many. It is unusual ‘- and slightly insulting ‘- that a film so exquisitely crafted in other respects has such a basic message (essentially the concept of karma) at its core. Unfortunately, this simplicity actually takes away from the effect of the film, leaving too many unexplained coincidences and unanswered questions to allow the acceptance of the miracle of fate that it attempts to enshrine. This is, of course, not an invalidation of ‘Slumdog’ as a whole. The film has a number of redeeming aspects and is, to be fair, a very engaging and entertaining experience. However, it ultimately mirrors the resplendent Bollywood-style musical number that accompanies the post-film credits ‘- gorgeous, exhilarating and almost fascinatingly empty.