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Slumdog Millionaire

January 15, 2009

There’s a very powerful rumour doing the rounds that Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s exceptional modern fable about the power of love and dreams and life in general, is a feelgood movie. You may even have seen the poster, two shiny-faced kids looking up and smiling as they are showered by cash, title and crit soundbites picked out in pink and yellow, and embellished by exclamation marks. Something like that.

That image, that vibe, is not this movie. That’s some dreadful future project for Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey, probably. Actually, and let’s for heaven’s sake be smugly prescient about it, can we upgrade that to a cast iron certainty? Of course it fucking is.

No, what the poster for Slumdog doesn’t show is the shit, the begging, the brutality, the crocodile clips attached to toes via a car battery, the eye-gouging with a hot spoon and the general hopelessness of grinding poverty. In fact, it’s pretty unrelenting (apart from a very good poo homage to Trainspotting that makes you laugh like a drain – big hint) for the first half hour, so much so that someone in the screening I went to clearly thought they’d come to the wrong film, sneaked out, and never returned. Big mistake.

Clearly they’d never seen a Boyle movie, never realised that the guy hits you rapidly with an assortment of deal-with-it imagery and sound (more on the sound in a minute), but always always follows the rule of each dark moment having an equal and opposite light moment somewhere along the line. So, here, in this story of a young street kid from the Mumbai slums who incredibly gets through to the final questions on Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian Who Wants to be a Millionaire?), Boyle’s entertaining black/white/black/white riff is given full voice. We’re presented with everything, and it’s exhilarating. Faeces and jasmine, Life and Death, rich and poor, Love and Hate, all these things and more are thrown out at the screen in a dizzying and intoxicating explosion. It’s chaotic, but wonderful. Boyle is his own contrast, too, doing a Lean-esque epic cityscape one moment and then a Ken Loach hand-held social commentary bit the next. But you never rest, there is no such thing as a boring moment here.

What this is, ultimately, is a picaresque novel. Jamal, the central character, begins the story in a police cell, being gruesomely tortured. Two questions away from the ultimate prize on the TV show, he has been arrested as a cheat and interrogated to discover just how he could know the answers to the questions so far asked of him. In a series of flashbacks, going back almost 15 years, he explains how he knows the name of a certain poet, just whose face it is on a $100 bill, and so on. Each section, bled into carefully and with great craft, is like a mini-movie in itself, and allows Boyle the free range of expression you just know he goes potty for.

The grim nature of most of these flashbacks is not watered down. As a very young boy, age 5 or 6, Jamal is abducted by a Fagin-like orphan King, who instructs his wards in the dangerous business of career scrounging. Knowing that blind children do so much better than their sighted counterparts, we get to see just how one little boy is placed among the top earners. Look away as the spoon is being heated over a flame. No, really. Jamal’s reunion with the same kid, a moment that explains the $100 conundrum, as an 11 or 12 year old, is a powerful indication of just how heartbreaking and emotional this tale is going to get.

Of course, as with all picaresque stories, there is a love interest, the beautiful Latika, whom Jamal falls for as a little kid, sees again a few years later, and then once more just before he goes on the show. In fact, she is the entire reason he goes on the TV, not to win money, but just to reach out and be noticed by her. Jamal, you see, is like all fable heroes, pure of heart, and loves Latika with absolute conviction, even if the rest of his life is in turmoil.

I won’t say any more about the plot, as it’s a joy to unravel. But the thing you really notice in all this is Sight and Sound. Capitals for two elements that lift this movie into an exemplary strata. I would advise seeing it on the biggest screen possible, with the loudest sound system, because quite frankly you want to be assailed by it. It thumps into you from the inspired title shot as Jamal and his buddies are playing cricket on the airport runway, being chased by security guards into the slum, like Renton and Spud escaping down Prince’s Street dropping CDs as they go, magnificent pounding beats cracking around your skull as the kids run hither and thither into the frenetic over-crowded bedlam. And it never lets go from there, not for a second. There are no wasted shots, no bum notes, no dips in quality. It just goes and goes and goes. Like Trainspotting before it, Slumdog will be this year’s iconic soundtrack, I can hardly wait to pick mine up. Boyle marries music and vision to perfection, and this may be his defining moment. Yes, even above and beyond his 1996 classic…seriously.

The climax is breathtaking, and I won’t ruin it, but to label this feelgood is so woefully misrepresentative as to constitute a crime. Think back to the black/white equation, if you need a hint. But in reality there are two climaxes…or three if you count the closing titles. Friends, at the end of this, I wept proper tears, some for it being over (I wanted it to go on forever!) but mostly for a whole mix of complex and heart-rending emotions. It turned me inside out. Yes, there’s a whole debate to be had about the poverty, the recent atrocities, the hopeless mess of failed social experiments and an uncaring world where no answers are offered, but the movie doesn’t really want to answer such things. It just wants to tell you that you shouldn’t forget certain key issues. And it does it brilliantly. Brilliantly.

Finally, a word about the closing titles. They are the best I have ever seen. Simple as. Joyous, energetic, filled with humour and silliness and, oh fuck it, I don’t have the words any more. Don’t rush out as the screen fades, because it’s a coda that’ll make you cheer through your tears.

A fantastic start to 2009.

One Comment leave one →
  1. unicornsurprise permalink
    May 11, 2009 4:01 pm

    One of the top 10 movies of the year. Not sure it was amazing enough for that many Oscars though. Wrestler and Benjamin Button had it beat. But oh well. If you’re after the music from these films, visit

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