There are no fairy tales in India, no white knights atop majestic steeds saving young damsels from despair and harm. But for the Western world, in which director Danny Boyle is fully ensconced, this former jewel of the British empire continues to hold romantic allure, whether as a destination for weary travelers seeking the succor of religious enlightenment, or as a haven of righteous simplicity. Indians, then, are more pure, tougher down to their fiber, and for the cinema of outsiders, this becomes a vacation from reality as much as an immersion in pale-faced condescension. With Slumdog Millionaire, the latest privileged assault against genuine suffering and life as lived, India becomes a nursery rhyme for American nitwits whose understanding of that mysterious jewel goes no further than the Taj Mahal or the twang of the sitar.
Horror and deprivation are on display, yes, but not so much that they interfere with a story of such Dickensian contrivance that Charles himself would have been embarrassed to have affixed his name to the cover. Everyone is always where they need to be, always at the right time. It is a tale of pluck, and destiny, and true love, which seem wholly out of place in a nation overrun with filth, child prostitution, and deadly disease. In one fell swoop, poverty itself is wiped away by loving gifts, granted with ribbons and bows intact as if from the heavens above. It’s the silliest of fantasies, made deeply offensive by setting and circumstance.
Jamal (Dev Patel) is the young man of the title, and his victory on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire is never in doubt, so spare me the indignation of having it revealed. This is not about surprise, after all, but the granting of a wish by Mr. Boyle and his guilt-ridden European crew. Maybe if this one underprivileged boy, by virtue of his winsome smile and can-do determination, can secure a 20 million rupee fortune, the rest of us can be spared from having to reflect further on the sheer magnitude of India’s misfortune. For to be poor in India is like poverty almost nowhere else on earth, and any five minutes of the slums of Mumbai would be inconceivable for the average American. We must detach, lest we go mad from disgust.
So Jamal and his brother Salim lose their mother in one of those confusing religious raids that are surely a daily occurrence in that country, but are wholly inexplicable to Western minds. But we are not meant to understand the intricacies of Indian politics or religious intolerance; the event is but a device to orphan these boys so that the story may be on its way. And so it is — hand to mouth, hook or by crook — and it is enough to find a place in the city dump to rest for the night. Quickly, the two are apprehended by a bright-eyed figure who is the usual stand-in for Oliver Twist’s Fagan, which means that a surface charm hides a deep, mean-spirited propensity for exploitation. The boys will sing for their supper, with all proceeds going to the man who provides it.
At this early stage in the story, it’s fairly watchable, largely because Boyle spares us no vile street corner, or stench of raw sewage flowing through the streets. Mumbai is dirty, polluted, and choking to death on its own lockstep adherence to Social Darwinism. One cannot imagine the thousands upon thousands of starving kids roaming at will in India’s cities, but the grime of life is not Boyle’s end goal. Needless to say, he’s not searching the soul of Satyajit Ray. While a native Indian would find small victories in this landscape, and seek to offer them as grim reminders of a defiant humanism, a foreigner will use the nation itself as a prop so as to reinforce the Western need for trumped-up, hollow victories. It’s all or nothing for us, while Ray might have seen mere bread as a suitable respite.
It’s fitting, then, that the film has to end on a game show, as much as it might distract the teeming masses from their daily humiliations. I suppose it acts in much the same way over here. But to conclude at that moment assumes that all we’ve wanted to see is a poor lad made rich, because we can imagine him living evermore with the woman he loves, likely far removed from the slums that gave him life. We wouldn’t begrudge him the move, though the more realistic turn is to have Jamal kidnapped and murdered within hours of cashing his big check. But that wouldn’t have white suburbanites reaching for their embroidered hankies. And they’re going to have to be the ones who make this film a hit, so you’d best flatter their sense of sheltered decency.
So the boys are forced to panhandle, and to Jamal’s horror, some are knocked unconscious and blinded so as to get more sympathy on the street. Apparently, this is where the money is. Jamal is outraged, so he saves his brother and young sweetheart, the stunning Latika (Freida Pinto). They hop a train to escape Fagan, but Latika’s grasp is weak, and she is lost. It is from this moment on that she becomes Jamal’s sole obsession, much to the story’s downfall. His fanaticism is so annoying, in fact, that we half hope she’s been sold into prostitution, never to be seen again. Ah, but she has been sold, though not as a whore (uh-huh, a girl this appealing would be spared, of course), but as an exotic dancer. Improbably (remember, Mumbai proper is a city of over 13 million — with its suburbs, a cool 20 million), Jamal finds her once again, and is instantly recognized despite the passage of years. It’s love, dammit, and destiny at that.
Only she will be lost to him once again, this time due to a brotherly betrayal, which seems unlikely, but must take place in order to have the necessary change of heart right when the story needs it. But Jamal never wavers: this is the only woman he has loved, or will love, and we do not see him even look at another female the rest of the film. I gather he’s still a virgin, though his brother has been the one to deflower the woman of his dreams. Again, I never believe the device of the unmotivated turncoat, but apparently gushing critics everywhere see that weakness as a virtue. One among many, it seems.
In case you’re wondering, the story of Jamal’s life is told through flashbacks, all to explain how this poor, uneducated slumdog came to know the answers on the game show. The host (and the police) believe he is cheating, but little do they know it’s something far more sinister: unholy serendipity. Wouldn’t you know it, every single question relates to a key moment in Jamal’s life, which feeds right in to the notion that all of this is pre-ordained. By whom or what is unclear, though I’d like to peek behind the curtain of a universe that finds justice in bestowing a fortune (and a hot girlfriend) on a single kid while leaving millions to die anonymously and in crippling pain. But that’s for you, the religious, to reconcile, not I.
Sure, the framing device “works” to bring the story together, but at what cost? It’s bad enough that a street urchin is given a chance at greatness (must every story be Rocky, after all?), but does the final question have to be the one that involves a key memory of Latika? Hell, even the use of “phone a friend” strains credulity. He only has his estranged brother’s number, right? But you see, his brother has released Latika from captivity just in time, I’m guessing so she can drive furiously down the street to catch the final show. She happens to have Salim’s cell phone with her, so she answers that call, though not until she has been forced to run back to the car for full dramatic impact, and pick up a split second before the host was going to cut it off. I mean, are you kidding me? This is what has the critical establishment hugging itself with glee? Are they really that dependent on improbable coincidences to get through their days? Oh yeah, they were the ones who gave Crash the fucking Oscar. Slumdog Millionaire, though, is enough to make that atrocity as random and free-flowing as Nashville by comparison.
But if you subscribe to the delusion that love conquers all, and that the desperately poor are but one quiz show away from sharing drinks at the country club, or that suffering is to be endured because there’s a pot at the end of the rainbow, this might be the movie for you. It’s precious, predictable, flat, and as rigged as wrestling, but it just might be enough to push back Mumbai’s recent bloody headlines and establish a tourist haven once more. It’s where dreamers go to dream, and the unfulfilled strive for purpose, and yes, where musical legends seek instruments and stimulants for landmark records. It’s where the empty become whole again, not out of any fealty to logic and good sense, but the misguided notion that the least among us somehow retain the most dignity, and that their broken bodies offer release from a materialistic wasteland.
Only the non-poor believe such insipid nonsense, but it keeps white faces on those wretched streets spending tourist dollars, standing in awe at what they couldn’t possibly understand, and wouldn’t care to, if their minds weren’t enfeebled by starry-eyed myth. Jamal, then, is yet another story to tell; a symbol of what we’d like to believe about squalor and inhumanity and the wicked corners we too often try to push aside. It’s how we live with the random chaos of existence, the accident of birth that never actually plays fair. But so long as we have a silly grin, a beautiful face, and the relentless drive to keep hope alive, we’ll live with the consequences. It’s an utter fraud from start to finish, but we need it like the air. Teeming with toxins, though it may be.