Diminishing Returns: A Poignant Story of Life in Mumbai Gets Undermined by Corporate Money

By Gilbey, Ryan | New Statesman (1996), January 12, 2009 | Go to article overview

Diminishing Returns: A Poignant Story of Life in Mumbai Gets Undermined by Corporate Money


Gilbey, Ryan, New Statesman (1996)


Slumdog Millionaire (15)

dir: Danny Boyle

If there is one director you would hope could be relied upon for an indictment of capitalism when we need it most, it's Danny Boyle. A distrust of money pervades Boyle's work, from his gruesome 1994 debut Shallow Grave, about the trouble that arises from the discovery of ill-gotten swag, to his recent children's adventure Millions, about the trouble that arises from ... well, you get the idea. This scepticism might have persisted in Slumdog Millionaire if the film were not compromised by its endorsement of a brand that promotes a starkly opposing view.

As the picture begins, 18-year-old Jamal (the sullenly handsome new comer Dev Patel) is poised to win a jackpot of 20 million rupees on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But, in a break before the climactic round, Jamal is bundled off to be grilled by the inspector of police (Irrfan Khan), who is convinced this uneducated boy must have cheated. The scenes of Jamal being tortured at the police station are disturbing, not least because they made me wonder if this was the sort of treatment dished out to that nice Judith Keppel, the first contestant to scoop [pounds sterling]1m on the UK version. (Or maybe the programme-makers considered the hours she spent in the company of Chris Tarrant to have represented torture enough.)

Slumdog Millionaire uses the questions that Jamal miraculously answers on the show to piece together his life story. How does he know the identity of a particular 1970s Bollywood superstar? How did he remember the composer of a forgotten Hindi ballad? And how could so impoverished a boy know that it is Benjamin Franklin's face that adorns a $100 bill? As the explanatory anecdotes accumulate, we follow Jamal as a child through his spell with a gang of thieves and beggars on the streets of Mumbai and into adolescence, where he diverges, in the time-honoured tradition of The Public Enemy, from his reprobate brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal).

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Simon Beaufoy's fragmented screenplay is mirrored in the film's aesthetic: the magpie-eyed camera gazes down at Mumbai's makeshift rooftops, which form a corrugated-iron jigsaw puzzle, and delights in the immense and gaily coloured patchwork of scarves and saris spread out to dry on the riverbank. The film is always on the hoof, partly to offset the game-show face-off to which it keeps returning, and partly, perhaps, to trump the opening chase in Boyle's Trainspotting. …

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