Great Expectations for Slumdog Millionaire

The Oscar buzz has already started and it’s only been one day since “Slumdog Millionaire” was released. So far, the new offering from British director Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting fame) has been referred to by The New York Times as a film that “could be the breakthrough work that leads the world to focus on the genre …of Parallel Cinema, a more personal narrative type of film like Mira Nair’s art house hit “Monsoon Wedding.” slumdog2.jpg

And, Roger Ebert predicts the film will win an Best Picture Oscar nomination, calling it “a breathless, exciting story, heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time [whose] universal appeal will present the real India to millions of moviegoers for the first time.”

When you read gushing reviews like Ebert’s, you can’t help but walk into the movie hall with high expectations, wondering whether a film can really live up to all the hype. The answer is: Yes.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is being billed as a film about “first love, determination, and realizing your destiny.” Not quite the pitch that you’d expect from a mainstream film about a kid from an Indian slum. This is a film that will surprise viewers who think they’re going in to watch a movie about India’s tremendous poverty and rich-poor gap. It switches swiftly between scenes that take you into an India that is at once poor and wealthy, moral and crime-ridden, developed and undeveloped, hopeful and disappointing. And, though the story is laced with a trace of Bollywood romance, goondas, and some implausability, it is for the most part, as Roger Ebert says, “real.” Add to that a soundtrack by A.R. Rahman and Danny Boyle’s directorial talent for bringing India’s sensory overload and motion to life without the typical exoticism or “oh those poor things” mentality and you have a winner.

More of my review below the fold. The premise of “Slumdog Millionaire” is the same as that of Vikas Swarup’s 2005 novel Q&A where Jamal Malik (admirably played by British-born Dev Patel), an 18 year old from the slums (in Swarup’s book, it’s Dharavi) gets a spot on India’s version of the international hit show, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” (That would be “Kaun Banega Crorepati?” which became a national phenomenon in India in 2000 and was hosted by Bollywood bigtimer Amitabh Bachchan.)

In Boyle’s onscreen version, the host of the show is Prem Kumar, a Bollywood star (played by Anil Kapoor) who also rose through the film industry from the slums. Prem Kumar does not find it plausible that Jamal, a poor “chaiwalla” who works at a call center, could actually know the answers to questions like “Who is the US president on a $100 bill?” or “What does the Hindu god Ram always hold in his right hand?” or “Who invented the first revolver?” and has him arrested after he makes it to the Rs. 10 million marker.

I have been holding on to Swarup’s novel “Q&A” since this summer and picked it up after watching the movie to see how the two compare [read Amardeep's review of the book here.] I usually don’t like to say that a film version has improved on a a book, but in this case I have to admit it’s true. The screenplay of “Slumdog Millionaire,” adapted by Simon Beaufoy (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Full Monty) takes Swarup’s intriguing premise and brings it to life in a plot that is less complicated, which is a good thing for the big screen. In Swarup’s novel, Jamal is Ram Mohammad Thomas, an orphan who is raised in Delhi by an English priest. I’m glad that the film starts and ends in Mumbai, for it allows viewers to witness the transformation of “Bombay to Mumbai” over the past decade and a half. QandA.jpg

In Swarup’s novel, the protagonist’s questioner is a female attorney, Smita Shah, and the questioning takes place in the comfort of her home.

“Look, Ram, don’t get agitated. I meant no offence. I really want to help you. But if you didn’t cheat, I must know how you knew.” “I cannot explain.” “Why?” “Do you notice when you breathe? No. You simply know that you are breathing. I did not go to school. I did not read books. But, I tell you, I know those answers.” “So do I need to know about your entire life to understand the genesis of your answers?” “Perhaps.”

The dialogue in “Slumdog Millionaire” is snappier, more natural. The movie opens in a prison cell where Jamal is being prodded, pushed, and tortured to reveal how he “cheated” on the game show. When even electric rods do nothing to get him talking, the police inspector (played by Irfan Khan who never ceases to impress me) takes him into his office, pops in a DVD of the gameshow, and begins to grill him on how he came up with his answers.

As Jamal tries to explain, his life story unfolds in a series of flashbacks. I don’t want to give the surprise away, so I won’t tell you more about this story, but suffice it to say that you will meet a street-smart, sensitive, and intelligent protagonist who is capable of diving into a pond of feces to meet his favorite Bollywood star (a scene that will stay with you for a long, long time) and savvy enough to survive as an orphan on the tough streets of Bombay. This is a story of sibling rivalry, but it is also a story of love that takes you into crime dens, call centers, entertainment sets, and tourist traps. And, it has a funny side. All this makes for fascinating viewing, and during the two-hour run, I rarely lost interest.

But, there was one question that kept popping up in my mind: “How is it that Jamal speaks such good English?” (The first half of the film alternates between Hindi and English and the second-half is mostly English). So far I haven’t read any reviews that question how it is that an uneducated boy who has spent most of his life on the streets can speak English in an Anglo-Indian accent, similar to grads of The Doon School. Maybe it doesn’t matter and it’s a matter of suspending disbelief. After all, if this was to be a commercial film, language was likely a consideration. And, yet, I keep being reminded of “City of God” where the language of choice was Portugese. I wonder whether sticking with Hindi would have added a layer of authenticity to the film?

In Swarup’s book, I did find an answer to why his main character speaks English:

Father Timothy was from the north of England, a place called York, but had been settled in India for very many years. It was thanks to him that I learnt to read and speak the Queen’s English. He taught me Mother Goose Tales and nursery rhymes. …

So, here’s my advice: Go see “Slumdog Millionaire” as soon as it comes to your city (it’s being released on a staggered schedule) and pretend that a scene that explains how Jamal learned the Queen’s English was cut for a very good reason. You’ll enjoy it much more that way.

Update: Thanks to “inothernews” for the link to the NPR story. I learned that the original screenplay was all in English, so that Boyle and team could get funding, but when they arrived in Mumbai and started shooting, they were convinced by the Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan that the film wouldn’t work unless they added Hindi. Apparently that caused a bit of a problem with his French and English backers.]

There are a couple of free screenings coming up: New York – 11/18 Los Angeles – 11/14 and 11/15 San Francisco – 11/25

And, here’s a trailer for your viewing pleasure.

118 thoughts on “Great Expectations for Slumdog Millionaire

  1. 100 · mfunnierthanyou said

    “Who is the US president on a $100 bill?”
    If I’m not mistaken, Ben Franklin is on the $100 bill, and he wasn’t ever a president ;) Excited to see the movie, though, thanks Sandhya.

    The question never said “Who is the US President…”, it said “Who is the US statesman on the $100 bill?”

    Yeah, I noticed the somewhat fair-skinned teenage Jamal, the elite Indian accent, all of that. I didn’t care. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to Bollywood that I’ve managed to suspend disbelief so easily.

    Great movie. I thought it was filmed with respect, compassion and excitement about India. Boyle’s camera was in love with Mumbai. There was certainly nothing condescending about the movie’s tone, and Boyle sounds enthusiastic in his interviews – not just about the movie, but about the city of Mumbai and India in general.

    It was a beautiful film, and puts Bollywood to shame in many ways. I wish the regional Indian film industries could turn out something like this.

  2. Hi, I have not seen the movie, but have become really intrigued by the comments and reviews I have read. I am just a bit apprehensive, however, from the comments I am reading it seems this movie seems to portray Mumbai as being some kind of epitome of poverty, a city of suffering and disease. I am well aware that this aspect does exist in Mumbai, I am well aware of the slums of Dharavi as well, but I am also aware that Mumbai is very cosmopolitian city(I have recently been there a few months ago) and has a significant middle-class and modernity about it and that for the most part Mumbai is a city of the rich. I was impressed with the high rises, the malls, the multiplexes, the peppy youth culture, which is the modernity that characterises much of the Western world. If this side has not been given due representation in Boyles film, then it is unfortunate and indicitative of some kind of racial politics. Why do I say this? Because despite the film being based on a protagonist who is from slums and thus it understandable why the slums would be the backdrop of the film, it is a Western film which has been made in India, using an Indian cast and utilising Indian hospitality and being a film that is going to represent India to the world, the director has a certain responsibility to portray India in a fair and realistic manner which shows both its urban squalor and its modernity. The same would be expected of an Indian filmmaker who goes to to Britain and USA and makes a film that is going to be globally broadcast. If an Indian goes to Britain and and makes a film on Chav(the underclass of British society) culture there, without counterbalancing it with the middle class there and its more sophisticated society, then this would never go unnoticed by Western critics and viewership. Such a film would be seen as offensive and would be condemned.

    Likewise, if Boyles film does indeed portray India in a stereotypical manner and does not illuminate its more progressive side, then Indians have good reason to be offended and have a right to express that. This should not be censored by anybody. If an Indian feels that his country and culture has been misrepresented then he or she has a right to express that. In media there is a saying, “It’s not what you say, but what you don’t say that is important” or in the case of cinema, what you don’t show. If Boyle has not shown India in a fair and balanaced light, then be assured that this is not accidental, it is deliberate. It has been the way of the West to portray countries like India as thrid world countries, poor, corrupt and backwards so that the Western person feels better about themselves by the contrast. It is in fact true, that the West is very racist, and especially for Indians or the broken-skinned folk in general there exists a lot of prejudice. This is not just the opinion of a certain strata of society, but if you look into Indic scholarship you will find that prejudice against Indian culture, religion and society is very deep-seated. This stems from the times of British subjugation of India, where India was regularly derided and ridiculed in British culture. It was portrayed in the worst manner and eveything about its philosophy, literature and arts were treated as inferior, crude and work of simple people. This attitude never left the West and even today it exists and occasionally bubbles up. Of course anybody who has studied Indian Philosophy, literature and arts will be well aware of how refined and enlightened its culture was. But now that has been relegated to a select arts courses in select universities, it is no longer taught in the mainstream. All we learn about in the mainstream is Western Philosophy, literature and arts. Thus unsuprisingly we become trained to appreciate the West, while denigrating our own culture.

    Indians now have to challenge this cultural imperialism and start challenging stereotypes about their culture and society. Do not be allured by aesthestic or style, look into the actual political core of the media that is being presented about your culture and society, and if it is objectionable, condemn it.

    I have not condemned Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in this post. I have merely talked about cultural representation and stereotypes which was being discussed in this blog. I will reserve judgement on Slumdog until I watch it myself.

  3. Saw it this evening. Entertaining. Both the detractors and the supporters have grounds for their opinions. Overall I liked it a lot, with of course major suspension of disbelief.

    I think the depiction of the lives of Mumbai street children was probably the most accurate part of the film…these kids face obstacles at every turn, whether from police, organised criminals,or just unsavory adults in general. Combined with their poverty and malnutrition, and the lack of any opportunities for education or upward mobility. But yet they seem to have a certain energy, sense of community, and at times, joy. I think. I don’t know much about them other than superficial observations, comments of others, and what I imagine to be true.

  4. Just saw the movie yesterday (yes, the last day of 2008…). Still puzzled by various aspects. Are the police that brutal? I am not sure (never having dealt with them in a confrontational manner). Communal riots that reek of intolerance? I am sure that mobs behave violently everywhere. But, the fact that the film chose to show and depict India in a dark/sinister light. Shades of Charles Dickens? These are some of the thoughts that came up for me. British/Western depiction of India has rarely been “fair and balanced.” When it comes to spirituality, India is over-glorified. When it comes to materialism, India is “dragged” through the shit (for details, see movie).

    Here’s the thing: Why don’t we make/show films like SALAAM BOMBAY more often? And, TRAINSPOTTING’s Danny Boyle paid India the biggest compliment by patterning his movie after Bollywood (o.k. with an MTV twist). Why did I mention the last day of 2008? Because SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE begins with an India that was rooted in the 20th century. By the time the movie finishes, the viewer has been transported into the 21st century India. Fantasy? Yes, how else do you sell a film? It has to have hopes and aspirations.

    Film is a commercial product. We now have a global marketplace. India was “not depicted correctly.” So what’s the problem? We have Bollywood’s resources at our disposal. We can answer/match any claim, right?

  5. If TITANIC was considered good enough for an Oscar, then I guess SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE might deserve an Oscar. However, on the merits of the film alone, I wouldn’t go there. Danny Boyle has done a great job in capturing the essence of the underside of a foreign city (From Bombay to Mumbai in a few hours) and he has done it with incredible production values. But what was the challenge? Hollywood and Bollywood are the two places where film talent abounds. Still, for a foreigner to “get” India (albeit a typical Western take) is a great feat.

    If the film sets a standard that must be met and surpassed, then it’s work is already done. The India depicted is hardly the “real India” so many westerners think they are seeing. Like America, India is a myriad of cultures, subcultures, races, religions, etc. India cannot be depicted in one single film. Facets of India, however, can be…

    This film was much hyped because to most Western audiences, it is exotic. But a film with logical fallacies and syrupy sentimentalism does not an Oscar film make (regardless of TITANIC like tendencies). Ultimately, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a love story–that it shares with various popular films. The protagonist is determined. But, he isn’t very assertive. Rather than shape his destiny, he adapts to reality. Jamal is not a hero in the traditional sense–he is a survivor.

    Parallels to a film originating in a concentration camp are not out of the question. The life of poverty is a hard one (the only difference being “free” in the context of not being behind bars). The extreme contrasts between the many Indias are masterfully shown. However, there is no denying that the underside of Indian society was more in evidence so as to shock. If an Indian had made a film like that about England, Scotland, America, or Germany, people would be upset. However, it is worth granting that more English, Scottish, Americans, and Germans make films critical of their own countries than Indians do (and no, Hollywood is no great role model in this regard either).

    The romance and the violence are typically Bollywood. Boyle is satirizing Bollywood but also paying homage to it. Could it be that the “conquerors” of the past are the “conquered” of the present? The soundtrack by Rahman was incredible. This is the India/musical fusion of the future–we are already there…

  6. Now that I am not giving too much away (the movie has been around for some time–still buzzing around in my head though…). Jamal Malik is the Indian version of Horatio Alger–From “Rags to Riches” fame (except for the fact that he didn’t work his way to the top). Rather, he plays the game of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Anil Kapoor plays the role of Amitabh Bachchan with a sarcastic and cynical edge. At one point, he mentions to Jamal that he also came from the slums. So, it seems, social advancement is possible in India (give the masses what they want).

    I am now officially curious about Swarup’s novel (the author of “Q & A” from 2005) and TRAINSPOTTING by Doyle. Not having read the former or seen the latter, I am going to stay away from making comments. However, I wonder if the scenes of torture or eye-gouging serve any purpose. Yes, life is tough for the poor and powerless. But, couldn’t the message have come across without the brutality? Is that how people See India? Or, do we not see the brutality in daily life? Asked another way, isn’t it the same everywhere? It’s the writer/director who “see” things in a certain way…

    Irfan Khan from THE NAMESAKE does a great job as a police officer (the “higher up” one). His “bad cop” routine eventually gives way to the “good cop” as he realizes that it is possible for Jamal to know all that he says he knows (something I couldn’t find myself believing). But the rhetorical device of equating questions on a quiz show with events in Jamal’s past–that was brilliant! Besides the love story, there is an Abel and Cain element here that should satisfy various universal theme issues. And yes, we see all the seedy sides of Mumbai (prostitution, begging, and exploitation) but also the entrepreneurial side of Indian existence (as when Jamal and his brother survive on the train by commerce).

    The fact that the main language in the film is English leads me to believe that the target audience is not meant to be Indian (or at the very least–the educated portion of English-speaking India). As with TITANIC, you will have to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the film. But, it is enjoyable. The questions come after the fact.

  7. The more I think about it, the more I get upset. People who don’t know India don’t know what kind of picture to have about India. Some of them now think that MOST children are treated badly in India–they don’t get that there are poor people and rich people (and even the poor are not treated that bad). It’s a story folks! Emotional shock value is one way to get attention. People who go into movies expecting a documentary experience are totally misunderstanding the medium.

    Life in India is not like what was depicted in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Most people don’t know that. The acting and cinematography in the film were excellent–that’s what makes it so hard to dismiss. A statement has been made, a response is waiting in the wings.

  8. I hope every contemporary Indian filmmaker speaks out against this film. If I were one of them, I’d be furious. America and I assume the Oscars finally notices India because of a film made by a British director with a shockingly blatant imperialist message. And people are liking this film? Amazing.

  9. Yay! Now I can’t wait till the Oscars. The film opens in India next week so I can’t even imagine what the reception there is going to be like!

  10. —-MAJOR-SPOILER-ALERT—– It is a rare compliment to have a western film made in India, but a backhanded one when it stoops so low. Frankly, aside from some pretty implausible situations and some english thrown in this film adheres to a mostly Bollywood formula. brothers born in adversity, one becomes evil, one falls in love, evil one gives up life for brother, other one gets the girl and gets rich.

    This movie is a fake. I have more respect for bollywood movies now since they are honest about their deception.

    BTW Lovleen Tandon was initially the casting director, but was credited as a co-director for her contributions.

  11. Mumbai Slum residents Protest “Slumdog Millionaire’s” name http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/22/mumbai-slum-residents-pro_n_159916.html

    “The joy wasn’t felt by some, however, as about two dozen slum residents protested the film outside Kapoor’s Mumbai home saying the title of the movie was an insult.

    “I am poor, but don’t call me slumdog,” said Rekha Dhamji, 18. “I don’t want to be referred to as a dog.”

    Other protesters held up banners reading “Poverty For Sale” and “I am not a dog.”

    Nicholas Almeida, a social activist who organized the protest, said he planned to file a lawsuit Friday to get the film’s name changed.

    “Slumdog Millionaire” tells the story of Jamal Malik, a poor youth who becomes the champion of India’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” television program as he searches for his lost love.

    On Wednesday the cast and director spoke to the media in New Delhi about the film, and the controversy it has sparked.

    “The film is going to be a terrific inspiration to kids around India. It’s a feel-good film, a film of hope,” said Kapoor, who grew up in a Mumbai slum.

    He dismissed claims that the word “slumdog” was offensive. “Children from the slums are actually called much worse names.”

    Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy said people should not read too much into the word. “I just made up the word. I liked the idea. I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” he said.”

    It amazes me how Beaufoy didn’t realize making up an insulting name, slumdog, for people who are already suffering would not be offensive to them. Today on CNN they did a segment on a Mumbai slum resident who educated himself and is now working in the finance industry in Mumbai, but the title of the CNN news segment on this guy was “Real Life Slumdog.” Beaufoy’s made up name, slumdog, is how even CNN is now referring to the Mumbai slum dwellers, even in their own otherwise inspiring news segment. Real nice job, Beaufoy.

    I say kudos to those Mumbai slum residents for standing up for their dignity against a popular movie in the West, and Western and Indian elites. It looks like Beaufoy and Kapoor are quite capable of throwing the poor under the bus when the poor Indians become inconvenient for them in their quest for Oscars for their movie. The book’s title “Q and A” shows much more respect to them than the movie title. Shame on Kapoor for making excuses for Beaufoy instead of supporting the Mumbai residents in their protest. So much for caring for the poor and their dignity, let that not get in the way of an Oscar or two.

  12. I did an internet search on the movie, and noticed there are quite a few news articles talking about “real life slumdogs” as if calling the poor, slumdogs, is okay even when talking about actual residents of slums. CNN (http://snackfeed.com/videos/detail/26a8c258-39dd-102c-a525-00304897c9c6/Real-life—slumdog–?_s=s) was not the only one with “real life slumdog” kind of title for stories on non-fiction people. It is one thing for a fictional movie title, but it is quite another to refer to real people as slumdogs by journalists in mainstream news media (print news and cable TV).

  13. 113 · Sameer said

    as if calling the poor, slumdogs, is okay even when talking about actual residents of slums.

    So, what do you think about the ancient indian practice of calling 15% of the indian population “untouchables”?

  14. Beaufoy’s made up name, slumdog, is how even CNN is now referring to the Mumbai slum dwellers, even in their own otherwise inspiring news segment. Real nice job, Beaufoy.

    Not really.

    It is an English translation of a very old Hindi term “gali ka kutta” (the dog of narrow lanes).

    In the movie, it is used by the inspector for the first time.

    You hear Indians using it all the time for poor and disenfranchised.

  15. “114 · achoot on January 25, 2009 12:24 AM · Direct link · “Quote”(?)

    113 · Sameer said

    as if calling the poor, slumdogs, is okay even when talking about actual residents of slums. 
    

    So, what do you think about the ancient indian practice of calling 15% of the indian population “untouchables”?”

    I think we should be respectful to all people and be considerate of the names we give them, especially by writers and directors creating movies that are supposedly the voice of the poor and especially journalists who should know better than to refer to people who live in the slums as “real live slumdog.” They are not “real live slumdogs” they are real live people.

  16. This is a story from England. Apparently, the child actors were not paid fairly – very sad:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/4347472/Poor-parents-of-Slumdog-millionaire-stars-say-children-were-exploited.html

    “Poor parents of ‘Slumdog millionaire’ stars say children were exploited The parents of two child stars of Slumdog Millionaire, British director Danny Boyle’s hit film story of love, violent crime and extreme poverty in India, have accused the producers of exploiting and underpaying their children.

    The film has already won four Golden Globes, and is set to sweep next month’s Oscars on its way to ringing up hundreds of millions of pounds in box office receipts, but eight-year-old Rubina Ali and Azhauddin Ismail, who played Latika and Salim in the opening and early scenes of the film, were paid less than many Indian domestic servants for their work on the blockbuster.

    Rubina was paid just £500 for a year’s work while Azharuddin received £1700. And while they both receive £20 per month for books and food, they continue to live in grinding poverty in one of the city’s most squalid slums.

    Both were found places in a free English-medium government school – usually attended by relatively poor children – and both families have been told there is a trust fund for their children’s future. But they have no details of it and remain sceptical.

    Last night their parents told The Daily Telegraph they had hoped the film would be their ticket out of the slums into new homes, and that the extraordinary success of the film had made them realise how little their children had been paid.

    Their payments are considerably worse than those received by the poor Afghan child stars of The Kite Runner, who embarrassed their Hollywood producers when they revealed they had been paid just £9,000.

    Rubina and Azharuddin live a few hundreds yards from each other in a tangle of makeshift shacks alongside Mumbai’s railway tracks at Bandra. Azharuddin is in fact worse off than during the filming – his family’s illegal hut was demolished by the local authorities and he now sleeps under a sheet of plastic tarpaulin with his father who suffers from chronic tuberculosis.

    “There is none of the money left. It was all spent on medicines to help me fight TB,” Azharuddin’s father, Mohammed Ismail, said between fits of rattling coughing.

    “Two months ago our shack was demolished by the municipality and now we have nowhere to live.

    “We feel that the kids have been left behind by the film. He should have been taken care of. We should have been taken care of. He is a hero of the film. He should have been taken to London. They have told us there is a trust fund but we know nothing about it and have no guarantees. At the moment, he has nowhere proper to live,” he said. “