Slumdog Millionaire works for reasons that it shouldn’t; what works in it and what’s wrong with it seem inseparable. For the first two-thirds of the movie, one almost doesn’t expect that it will work at all, but the director, Danny Boyle, and the screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy (who adapted Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A), pull us through. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a genial one—and its beautifully constructed structure is just about ironclad. The filmmakers at work here give the material exactly the treatment it needs, but I think that the underside of their achievement is that, even at its peaks, Slumdog exposes their limitations.
The story is simple—almost too simple. The eponymous “slumdog” is Mumbai street urchin Jamal Malik (played by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala as a youngster, and Dev Patel at 18). Shards of the caste system still seem to lay about Jamal’s India, and no matter where he walks, he seems to step on them. He witnesses such atrocities as the murder of his mother—executed for being Muslim—and a mob-run training camp for young panhandlers, at which the campers with the best singing voices have their eyes gouged out. (The mobsters are more successful when the beggars they pilfer from are blind.) The whole world seems to be conspiring against Jamal, his pure little lover Latika (Rubiana Ali, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, and, finally, Freida Pinto), and his brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala and, as a young adult, Madhur Mittal)—that is, until Salim murders the mob boss who ran the camp, aligns with a rival triad, and casts his younger brother out of his life. But Jamal and Latika—those poor, dreamy-eyed little sweethearts who aren’t old enough to consummate their love—still pine for one another. Latika is installed as the moll of Salim’s brutal new don, and hopeless-romantic Jamal finds himself on the Hindi-TV Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with hopes that this outlet may attract her attention. But Jamal can’t even catch a break there: His street-smarts lead him to answer all the questions correctly, but even the skuzzy host (who looks more like Dennis Miller than Regis Philbin) wants him to fail, and, suspected of cheating, Jamal is prematurely tossed to the police.
The brilliant structure uses the police interrogation as its crux; from that “present,” we flash back to a videotape of his appearance on Millionaire, and from there to the episodes in his life that allow him to answer questions like, “Who’s on the $100 bill?” (The cops here are, by the way, just as brutal as the criminals. When the movie opens on them electroshocking Jamal, the audience is cued to believe that these barbarians are part of the underworld.)
Boyle’s vision of India is bizarre—grandiose cynicism is mixed with a devout sentimentality, but at a level that seems below weltschmerz. India is a din, sunlit nightmare for its poor; it seems the only choices open to its least fortunate are crime or, in Jamal and Latika’s case, intractable romanticism—a dreaminess that’s as absurd as their bad luck. For that reason, Slumdog seems trapped at some primal level. We can’t buy the lovers as characters, and their assailants seem so purely malign in their intentions that we can’t imagine that Boyle or Beaufoy ever gave any regard for their motivations. (Most of the adults here are so unsavory that one wonders if the filmmakers intended to pander to eight-year-olds in time-out.) Slumdog is, unfortunately, that kind of movie—a fable. Good is pitted against evil, but it’s all okay: it’s part of a divine plan—or, in the movie’s pseudo-cryptic lingo, “it is written.”
But, boy, has Beaufoy written it! And Boyle has directed the hell out of it. And it works. Their methods are so vital, and their intentions seem so pure, that one could picture his film being conceived by a hardscrabble romantic like Jamal. Slumdog doesn’t feel like the work of a cynical hack—even a talented one. Hacks are too sane to bathe such limp material in entropic excess. Boyle humiliates, frustrates, and thwarts Jamal like an Old Testament deity, but sticks with him like a loyal friend; Boyle and Beaufoy throw so many hardships at the slumdog that it seems ridiculous, but their insanity isn’t sadistic—we’re worked up to want to see these two cardboard paramours united, but we don’t feel worked over. The filmmakers care, and want us to care, so their zest transcends what could have simply been cancerous over-stylization. The substance here is the heat beneath the style; but the paramours are still made out of cardboard.