At one point in the much-praised crowd-pleaser Slumdog Millionaire, the poor child siblings scratch out a small living by appointing themselves as tour guides at the Taj Mahal. For a small fee, the young Muslims lead white tourists through India’s most famous monument. They tell them what they know. When they don’t know, they make up. The reflecting pool, it turns out, has always been a nice place for a swim.
When one couple asks to see “the real India,” they take them to the banks of a river, perhaps the Ganges, teeming with human ardor. As they walk to the beach, criminals loot the car. Welcome to the real India. Do we ever see the “real India” in Slumdog Millionaire? Scripted and directed by two Englishmen (Simon Beaufoy and Danny Boyle, respectively), too much feels like a tourist’s version. The film never advances beyond a ripped-from-the-headlines level of Indian experience. Anti-Muslim riots, child exploitation, call center culture. One wonders who cut the tragic tsunami.
On the verge of winning the grand prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Jamal (Dev Patel) suffers shocking treatment in the custody of the Mumbai police. They do not believe that a poor Muslim orphan could possibly know the answers without cheating. As the interrogation continues, Jamal spins his tale of a life lived tough and hard-earned knowledge. After his mother dies in a religious riot he and his brother come under the malicious care of a gangster who uses orphans as beggars. The pair later runs a gauntlet through the ancient and modern façades of Mumbai. Jamal also pines for his childhood sweetheart Latika (Freida Pinto), whom a gangster takes as a wife. While presenting itself as an authentic Indian tale from the slums of Mumbai, Millionaire is rife with foreign cultural impositions.
The storyline lifts the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn – two drifting innocents, living on luck, pluck, and thrift, dodging the cruelties of the adult world. Others will say Oliver Twist. Its world of two young brothers – one righteous and the other streetwise – also owes a debt to Boyle’s Millions. It’s true, it’s hard to question the authenticity of the depiction from a computer in North America, especially when it’s based on a book by Indian author Vikas Swarup. Yet it’s up to the film to convince me. And I don’t feel convinced in the way that I feel about Peter Weir’s Australia. Or Fernando Meirelles’ Brazil. Or Boyle’s Britain, for that matter.
In fact, Meirelles’ City of God is the most direct comparison, and in its deficiencies Slumdog Millionaire highlights the superb details of that film. City of God doesn’t just run symbolic innocents through the metaphorical evils of Rio’s favelas. It grasps the politics, the personalities, the histories, the rivalries, the secret deals, all the things that make its slum a distinctive place. When things happen in City of God, they feel like the nasty result of decades of buried psychology and history. When things happen in Millionaire, they feel like literary conceits.
That artificiality extends to the movie’s star-crossed romance. If you’re going to have an epic love story, it pays to have two young lovers who actually feel like they are in love. The phrase ”There are other fish in the sea,” should not enter your mind. Patel and Pinto are as spotty in delivering electricity as the nation of India itself. Since his breakthrough with the Scottish druggie film Trainspotting, Boyle has found himself in the familiar position of trying to live up to early greatness. Since then, he’s bounced around that territory without fully realizing it.
The zombie flick 28 Days Later has been tremendously influential. Millions is underrated. Sunshine is intriguing before falling apart at the end. If Slumdog Millionaire is his vehicle to greater acclaim, I don’t begrudge it. I just won’t be on board [Slumdog Millionaire won the People’s Choice Award at Toronto]