Danny Boyle/Loveleen Tandan, UK, 2008, 120 min.
The problem with a film about destiny is that you know where the story is going. That is not always a bad thing, but in Slumdog Millionaire the structure of the film allows for multiple manipulative set-pieces that drive the story predictively towards the foreshadowed conclusion.
The versatile Danny Boyle directs the faux-bollywood story of Jamal Mallik’s (played by Dev Patel) rise from slumdog street urchin to Who Wants to be a Millionaire? contestant poised one question away from the big multi-million rupee prize.
How could a slumdog know all the answers to those questions? Jamal knew them because each one had something to do with his journey. The film opens with Jamal being interrogated (beaten and electrocuted) by the police because they think he cheated on the show. The police, reviewing a tape of the show, have Jamal tell them how he knew each answer. This sets up the structure of the film. Scenes from Jamal’s childhood are intercut with the police station and the game show.
The flashbacks show Jamal’s horrible childhood in the misrepresented Mumbai slums. In scenes ranging from Jamal’s mothers death to beggar children being forcibly blinded, a feel-bad atmosphere is built to further accentuate the feel-good ending. During these scenes he meets, loses, finds and again loses the love of his life, Latika. In an effort to get her back, he goes on the game show.
It’s all painted in broad strokes. Black and white. The slums are bad. Jamal’s love is pure. We know he loves Latika because he says so. We know the “orphanage” man is evil because he looks evil. We know what the ending will be because it’s written at the beginning of the film.
Even with these issues, I can’t be too hard on the film. Danny Boyle is a smart film-maker and he knew what he was doing. He wanted to make a feel-good film and he did. Even if the viewer knows he or she is being manipulated, the manipulation works. It’s not a great pay-off, but the emotional release, although hollow and predictable, is still very much present.