Rated R because it is a wildly depressing film despite the fact that it found a very wide audience. There's child exploitation and abuse, both sexual and physical. There's all kinds of disturbing violence. There's a lot of feces, which is used to comic effect. There's language, but again, that always kind of seems like an afterthought after writing about the things I just talked about. There's slavery. This movie has a lot of questionable content, but we only remember the parts involving Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? R.
DIRECTORS: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
I oddly thought that I would never watch this movie again. It's not that I disliked it / dislike it. In fact, I think the movie is way more impressive on a second watch. It's just that everyone was talking about this movie for a hot second. I don't know what part of my brain instantly gets into judgment mode when that happens, but I really just love the idea of being outside the zeitgeist, I guess. I remember a buddy of mine from the video store days railed against this movie. He thought it was the lowest common denominator kind of stuff. Mind you, he and I often disagreed, but I always respected his opinion. I think we might both be right about this movie. It is emotionally manipulative and kind of a gimmick, but it is that type of storytelling done really well.
I'm going to talk about things not in binary good or bad. There's just some things that I don't know if I would have done. Slumdog Millionaire is an exercise in keeping as many plates as possible in the air. There's almost too much going on here. I mean, I'm going to establish very clearly that Boyle pulls it off. He's a really good director and he knows how much things will work before they topple. But looking at this finished product really makes me feel like the whole thing is up there, but wobbly. Like, it's more impressive that it is up in the air as opposed to the individual beats. But that being said, I can't ignore that this is an impressive piece of cinema. The thing that puts it over the top, oddly enough, is the central conceit. I don't know if the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? stuff really needs to be in the film. Yes, there is tension on whether or not he is going to win. But it takes such a backseat to Jamal's personal history that it almost seems absurd that he's going to be one of the richest men in India because of this gameshow. Does he need the wealth? No. It's this nice coda establishing that he has earned the life he is about to receive. But that's where the plausibility really ends.
I think a lot of stories about Fate-with-a-capital-F really run into the same problem. I used to teach The Alchemist. It's not my favorite book, but my students absolutely dig it. It's a nice start off to the year and allows them to be more open minded when it comes to the more challenging books that we'd be reading later in the year. But stories like Slumdog Millionaire and The Alchemist really hinge on the concept of Fate being real. Myself, don't really buy it. It's almost like a Twilight Zone kind of story. Jamal shouldn't have been able to get onto the game show, but it was written that he did. Every single question (some of them oddly easy for final rounds of show that has apparently stumped doctors and scholars alike) aligns with his skill set, even if it means educated guesses. But is that also a condemnation of Fate as a concept?
Think about this: We read the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? stuff as the reward for a life of misery. Jamal has lost his mother. The love of his life has been forced into prostitution and slavery, along with probably being raped by his brother. He has immersed himself in feces and had his prized possessions given away in spite. He has been hunted and watched people killed at point blank range. One side of that is a story where karma returns all of the misery for outrageous fortune. But what if all of that is actually inverted? I mean, the questions may have always existed outside of time. What if Jamal's life simply took a path that would allow him to answer any question? After all, Boyle starts the story with Jamal on TV already. From our perspective, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? is the present and everything else is told through flashback or nontraditional chronology. That's a real bummer because I think that Jamal would agree that he would rather be without the millions if none of those miserable things happened to him. I know this because he risks an ungodly amount of money when he doesn't even know the answer for something. There's a message that says that money corrupts and means nothing, but he still gets it all in the end anyway.
While the central story has to be about the money, considering that it is in the title of the film, I do want to look at other elements that are either odd or genius. One of the weaker moments of the movie is the characterization of Irrfan Khan's police inspector. Part of me wants to believe that he's a dynamic character. He starts off absolutely believing that Jamal is cheating. He believes it so much that he encourages torture of someone of whom has no actual evidence against him. He goes really far too. It's not torture as in "Some of his rights are violated." It's torture in the sense that if anyone saw him do what he did, there would be serious criminal allegations behind the actions. Yeah, he's got his henchman behind him who seems to enjoy the torture more, but the rest of the film shows him to be good cop. He believes Jamal's story and actually invests in it, wondering whatever happened to Salim and Latika. By the end, it seems like the Inspector is Jamal's only friend, but that's kind of gross, isn't it? He's never apologetic for almost killing him. It's just that we find out that he has a good heart? I don't know how to think about that at all? I don't care what kind of heart he has. He's a bad dude who is remarkably comfortable with torture of a young kid coupled with an impassioned hatred for the poor. It's real gross.
But I do want to look at the story of two brothers. That's where the movie really flies for me. In my head, there's a version where the Millionaire stuff is taken out. When you take away the Millionaire stuff, you take away that police stuff, or at least recontextualize it to make it more plausible. The movie seems to be hiding a lot of really important stuff around a high concept. This is the story of two brothers. They were raised the same way. One was older and had to accept a lot more responsibility, coupled with a toxic understanding of masculinity. The other brother developed a thick skin and became a little more empathetic than the older one. It becomes a story about the importance of family and how society and money can completely destroy who we are. Because Salim knew that money would keep them alive, he did anything he could for it. At the end of the day, the money is also the thing that drove the brothers apart and would lead to Salim's death. Boyle didn't miss a beat having Salim die in a tub full of money. But Jamal, with one of his lower needs met, could have room to empathize. Because money wasn't his top priority and because he could rely on someone else for survival, he was able to reach out to others and become a good person. Part of me wants to read this as a genetics thing. Salim was born rough, so he stayed rough. But I think it is circumstance and priorities as well, based on cultural understandings of expectations on an older child. It's something to think about at least.
But at the end of the day, Slumdog Millionaire is really impressive and pretty entertaining. Yeah, part of me wants to play the snob card and say that it's emotionally manipulative. But I also liked it, so should I pretend that it isn't impressive?
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.