As ever, a multitude of spoilers lie within, read on at your peril…
When I went to the launch of the London Film Festival, waaay back in September last year, I mentioned Slumdog Millionaire on this blog as it was the closing night film. It’s been getting a ton of hits lately, thanks to all the awards, so I thought I’d better write a little review…
First things first. The embarrassing revelation. I didn’t go to see it at the LFF because I thought it looked a bit… well… crap. Sorry! There was just a short clip of the boys when they are small and riding the train along to M.I.A’s Paper Planes – which I do like, but it’s overplayed, and the whole scene struck me as a bit clichéd – she even sings about sitting on trains several times in it. I mean, it’s a bit literal.
There’s a decent reason for my judgey hate. You see, the LFF had closed with another India film the year before, in 2007, the god-awful The Darjeeling Anderson. Sorry, I meant Limited. That was a real typo people! I really, sincerely hated it. Apart from being thoroughly lazy Wes-Anderson-by-numbers, it was firmly in the category of that whole “isn’t India wonderful and mystical” pile-of-crap category, where the country and all its people are mere background. Anderson’s even happy to let a small Indian boy die to make a point about his main characters’ bravery; they forget about the incident pretty quickly in any case.
That song was the only good thing about it, as well as the five minutes of Angelica Huston at the end. I should’ve known better than to think the same of Danny Boyle. He’s the anti-Anderson in terms of trying new stuff with his films – just look at that track record. I went to a screening last month and loved it.
SM is a big ol’ soft-hearted love story wrapped in a lifetime of horrible suffering and transience. There is heartbreakingly painful realism in there, in the whole of Jamal Malik’s life-story, but of course it all hooks together to help him answer all the game-show questions and find his way back to Latika, lady of his dreams (who he’s known for ever, but not actually managed to spend any time with her, due to all the bad stuff and moving around mentioned earlier). I’ve taken ages to review the film because it is exhilarating cinematic storytelling at its best, and it’s hard to analyse that without destroying it.
Jamal and Latika are a tad bland and passive, but that’s because the story is so much bigger than them. It’s been called Dickensian, and that’s about right. It’s Great Expectations, but, instead of having a benevolent Magwitch, Jamal makes his own fortune, and absolutely, definitely gets the girl (who is a lot nicer than Estella, from what we see of her – it’s a small role). It’s also the story of his brother, who takes the opposite path, and of police brutality, and the changes that have come over Mumbai during their lifetimes. There’s religious violence and killing, torture, gangsters, the blinding of a child, a forced marriage. This isn’t an India that you’ll find in The DL; this is, however, the India that dominated the news in November. Little did the makers know that during filming.
It’s a depressing view of sweet, honest Jamal’s past; but it’s important to see this side of any country, and to explore the lives of its inhabitants on the wrong side of the rich-poor divide. It’s a much better way of using India in a film than just parachuting Owen Wilson et al. in, and treating the setting as though it could be any ‘exotic’ country, if that’s what you honestly need to shoehorn some depth into your characters. That isn’t to say that everyone in India must be having all that bad a time, but why should the slums of Mumbai be any lovelier than the Brazilian favelas in City of God and Tropa de Elite (review on its way)? Jamal is one of the lucky ones.
What makes SM is how the film balances the love story (and the audience’s knowledge that things will have to be okay, as we know from the start that he wins) against the portrayal of the darkest places of Mumbai. And that’s the bit that’s impossible to describe, for me. You’ll just have to see it. It’s really good.
PS: That Bollywood dance number at the end, though? Bad idea, whoever came up with that one, BAD. So jarring.