Magazine article The American Conservative

Dickens in Bombay

Magazine article The American Conservative

Dickens in Bombay

Article excerpt


[Slumdog Millionaire]

Dickens in Bombay

AFTER SWEEPING the Golden Globe awards, "Slumdog Millionaire," the plucky movie about an uneducated underdog from the slums of Bombay who wins 20 milUon rupees on the local version of the quiz show "Who Wants to Be a MiUionaire," has become the Oscar race overdog.

Seven-year-old Jamal and his older brother Salim are orphaned in 1992 when Hindu nationalist mobs torch their Muslim slum in Bombay-or "Mumbai," as the Shiv Sena politicians who fomented these pogroms renamed the city in 1996. Although trendy Westerners all use "Mumbai" now, no locals call their famous film industry "Mullywood."

In their Dickensian struggle to survive, the brothers, along with a pretty foundling giri named Latika, scavenge in a vast garbage dump. They are lured away to an "orphanage" run by a Fagin-like impresario of child beggars who blinds his best prospects to make them more pitiable. Fortunately, our heroes escape to peddle snacks on India's famous trains and guide gullible Western tourists around the Taj Mahal. As adolescents, they finally make it back to Bombay. Salim becomes a hit man, while Jamal sticks to humble but honest work.

Six years of economic growth later, Jamal, now delivering tea in an outsourced call center, finds Latika enslaved as the moll of his brother's mob boss. (I suspect this plot twist was hoary when Jimmy Cagney was young.) To make enough money to run off with his beloved, Jamal goes on "Who Wants to Be a MiUionaire." There, as fate, karma, or kismet would have it he finds he knows the answer to each trivia question because it had come up at a memorably dramatic moment in his life.

Jamals run of good fortune entrances India, but the evil game show host, who resembles a subcontinental version of comedian Dennis Miller, doesn't care about his booming ratings. Before the final round, he has Jamal arrested and tortured to find out how he's cheating. By recounting his life in flashback, Jamal convinces the police captain of his true-heartedness and returns for the final showdown question.

Unfortunately, "Slumdog's" success in the year-end awards largely reflects a lack of competition. The film contains, in theory, most of the elements of a crowd pleaser, but the actual product turns out to be less enjoyable to watch than a good episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. …

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