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Slumdog Millionaire (review)

If He Were a Rich Man

Well! Talk about the vagaries and the mysteries of fate: now we know why the world has been overrun by idiotic game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire — it’s been so that now, a decade after this particular brand of insidiousness and avarice began infecting us, Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, The Beach) could give us this enchanting movie about love and destiny and honor and perseverance and how a shitload of money cannot ever hope to measure up to them.
It’s all sort of a smack in the face of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, in fact — note the game show’s eschewing of the question mark, as if there could be no doubt that everyone wants to be a millionaire. “Who wants to be a millionaire?” Cole Porter asked in his 1956 song of the same name. “I don’t” was the answer — Porter preferred love instead, and that’s what this astonishingly unclassifiable movie prefers, too, in its tale of a poor Mumbai teen about to win 20 million rupees on the Indian version of the popular quiz show… if he will be allowed to win.

Is Slumdog Millionaire a fantasy? A coming-of-age drama? A romance? A horror story? It’s all these things, and none of them, and everything that can be said about it sounds, outside the context of its rare unexpectedness, insane or trite or both, yet is in fact neither. Jamal Malik (wonderful newcomer Dev Patel) is in the hot seat of the ridiculous game show, and is about to advance to the final round when the show, which is going out over the air live, breaks for the evening. Audiences have been watching this uneducated kid from the slums advance effortlessly through question after question, and some of them are getting suspicious: How could he know all these answers? He must be cheating. (This is where it starts to sound insane.) So the police arrest him and torture him — and that is not too strong a word for what they do to poor Jamal — to get him to confess. Torture… over a game show! Madness! But Jamal won’t confess. He can’t. He’s not cheating. He knows all these answers, and he will explain how to the police inspector (the indispensable Irfan Khan: The Darjeeling Limited, A Mighty Heart).

I won’t tell you how: the very great pleasures of Slumdog Millionaire, which is based on a novel by Vikas Swarup with the far less magnificent title of Q&A [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] come in discovering how Jamal’s life — his entire life! — seems to have been leading him to this very moment, the moment when one answer to one question could gain him 20 million rupees… as well as the girl he loves. This is where it starts sounding trite, to explain it: The money’s gonna get him Latika (Freida Pinto), the girl he loves? So we know what she loves then, don’t we? But we don’t, and what’s going on is nothing you’d expect, and getting there is not much like anything the movies have ever shown us before.

As Jamal watches a video recording of his performance on Millionaire with the inspector, and we learn how Jamal could possibly have at his disposal the seemingly obscure trivia needed to answer each question correctly, there builds an ineluctable sense of his experiences as wealth and his life as rich even if he doesn’t win the 20 million. And that sounds trite too, because we’re used to hearing such things almost facetiously, as if they were stale aphorisms embroidered on a throw pillow. But it’s for real for Jamal: he’s truly lucky to be alive and sane and a decent person after the horrors he’s seen throughout his short life. Beating and torture at the hands of the police is almost the least of it — the creepy feeling that he is being pinned to a board like a captured butterfly by the Millionaire host (Anil Kapoor) is only slightly less uncomfortable. Slumdog offers us this terrible child’s-eye view on the nightmares of slum sanitation (or lack thereof) religious violence, abuse and neglect and abandonment, the torments of seeing the pleasures of wealth sitting side by side with shocking poverty…

And it’s all indescribably perfect: surprising and fresh and moving and uplifting and brave and tough. It’s a celebration of street smarts and a repudiation of the dubious values of greed and disgrace that have made shooting galleries of humiliation like Millionaire popular in the first place. It’s about how 20 million rupees don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world, not really, but the troubles of a boy and girl and a city most certainly do… at least to them.

MPAA: rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
  • P. Ryan

    I saw this movie two weekends ago because I kept hearing “Oscar buzz” on it. And I left the theater absolutely enthralled and in awe of what I had just seen. Heck, I’m still thinking about it NOW.

    Plus Best. End. Credits. Ever.

  • drew ryce

    The chance of seeing a film like this is what keeps me going to the movies. How do you describe it? It’s rich in scope and detail, like Dickens, but uses the narrative line of “The Old Man and The Sea”.

    Great movie.

  • Miguel

    I wonder why Endemol allowed this film to use the actual Millionaire brand… the film basically says that India is so corrupt that the local Endemol staff would either participate on or request the torture of a contestant! hardly a storyline to which an international production company would like to associate itself.

  • darryl

    its nice to see a movie that understands fate and destiny far outweigh anything man could create to stop it.

    merry christmas.

  • A Guy

    Thumbs way down. It was like watching Hostel II and, at the end, having the survivors get a big check and join in a musical dance number. The good/bad balance is way out of whack.

    The movie was far far too grim for a happy ending like that. A bit of whipped cream does not make a steaming pile of dog crap into a tasty sundae.

  • sally

    Hey A Guy, you just can’t appreciate a good movie because you don’t understand what a good movie consists of. Slumdog Millionaire epitomizes a “good movie.”

  • drew ryce

    A Guy doesn’t grasp the ages old convention of bringing your young travelers thru the valley then providing them, and the audience, with a happy conclusion.
    If the “good/bad is too imbalanced” in Slumdog then it is also too imbalanced in Oliver Twist, Tom Jones, Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, Alien, The Searchers, It’s a Wonderful Life, Empire of the Sun, Lord of the Rings, etc.

    Slumdog could have had a gloomy ending. But, to what purpose? The alien kills Ripley, Tom Jones is hung, Oliver dies of the pox, Ethan Edwards kills his niece, the Hobbitts are all killed by the Orks…

    So what?

  • A Guy

    Drew Ryce: Almost my point exactly. Except that Slumdog Millionaire, in terms of darkness, was those movies you mentioned on steroids.

    What if the Hostel movies ended in a big song and dance number? Relentless torture porn and then a bolted on, unreasonably happy ending (not done for irony).

    Would you say I have a point about “that” movie?

  • drew ryce

    Oliver Twist: Oliver grows up in abject poverty is sold into brutal indentured slavery, joins a gang of child thieves, his closest companion (Nancy) is brutally murdered saving him but then he finds love: fade out.

    That is a pretty fair synopsis of the plot line for Slumdog.

    I can’t respond to your Hostel point because I haven’t seen those films. I assume that the point to those films is a Grand Guignol of violence and bummerness. So, yeah, a happy ending would be out of place.

    But that isn’t Slumdog. Every step of the slumdogs journey is a triumph over the odds. Again and again he, literally, climbs out of the shit to claim his prize. In the end, whether he gets the final answer right is unimportant. He has found his love and his brother (like Nancy in Oliver Twist) has cleared the path for them to be together.

    You seem to focus on the song number at the end of Slumdog. To me it is a throwaway since it comes over the end credits.
    I think that a bit of celebration at the end worked well in this case.
    Was the film ruined for you because of this? In other words, were you enjoying a fine film until the end credits? If so, you might want to reconsider your position. There aren’t a lot of films that deliver even this much enjoyment to the viewer.

  • A Guy

    Drew Ryce: I’ve seen Oliver Twist and Slumdog Millionaire is no Oliver Twist. SDM is underground dog fighting to OT’s greyhound dog racing. Both abuse dogs but are far from equivalent.

    OT never blinded children with hot oil. I don’t recall kids in OT ever being in serious risk of losing their life or of being sold into prostitution.

    For me, SDM crossed the child jeopardy line (big time) and then tried to claim it didn’t with a big check and a dance number (which did bugged the beejeevers out of me and seemed indicidive of the film’s attitude toward the material).

  • drew ryce

    We may not be talking about the same movie.
    The Oliver I am refering to is the 1948 David Lean film where Bill Sykes murders Nancy while the bulldog (a fighting dog by the way) scrambles in terror to escape. In this film, as in the original material, Nancy is a prostitute, the children are all in the thrall of a thief and killer, justice is for sale, poverty is inescapable, Bill is killed by a mob and I’m pretty sure that Fagin is hung (it’s been awhile).

    I would say that Lean’s Oliver Twist is as unrelentingly in it’s realistic view of child poverty as is Slumdog. Maybe more so. Filming the dog during the murder scene is a stroke of genius that only a master of film like Lean can come up with. Far more powerful than any slasher film approach could ever be. Scared the beejeezus out of my as a kid I must say.

    Still, I think I understand your position better now. Slumdog could accurately be said to have crossed a subjective line in child endangerment. I can well understand that the blinding scene could have had a grave affect on you. If so, the dance number at the end must have seemed a travesty of huge proportions.

  • A Guy

    Drew Ryce: Ah! I’ve never seen the David Lean version. I was thinking of Oliver from 1968. I’m pretty sure it was a musical.

    And it was indeed during the blinding scene that I basically checked out and was unable to accept the happy ending / dancing scene.

  • MaryAnn

    *Oliver* the musical, while it may be delightful on its own terms, bears about as much resemblance to Dickens as *A Christmas Carol on Ice* does.

    SDM as *Oliver Twist* is an *excellent* comparison. Wish I’d thought of it.

  • MBI

    As far as torture scenes goes, you’re not going to find any tamer than in “Slumdog Millionaire.” Seriously. It’s not quite as whitewashed as the Holocaust in “Life Is Beautiful” but it’s also certainly not the work of Mel Gibson or Eli Roth either. This is not pain with very much of an edge on it, so I can only assume you’re a pansy.

  • drew ryce

    “I can only assume you’re a pansy”

    I will never understand the mindset that makes strangers think that saying such obviously false things is ‘scoring points’.

    Obviously, Boyle meant the blinding scene to have an effect on the audience. Obviously, it did.

    Obviously, the amount of effect will vary from person to person. But, it is clear that watching a helpless child being blinded is horrific.

    Calling someone that is horrified to watch a deliberately horrific event a ‘pansy’ says nothing about them but everything about the name caller.

  • shoop

    Right on, Drew Ryce. Here’s one of the few situations where I can agree with being “vociferous.” Such abusive, evil insults should be denounced as vociferously as possible.

  • http://www.dpsinfo.com/blog Laurie D. T. Mann

    I generally liked Slumdog Millionaire, but the first 30 minutes plus the blinding scene were just so hard to watch that I was cringing quite a bit. The shooting scenes later were tame by comparison.

    Boyle continues to show that he’s one of the best director of children of his generation (the kids in SDM were terrific, and he also directed the charming “Millions” a few years back).

    I was a little confused about the whole police torture thing (which made no sense at all), but it was clear later that the host of the TV show had some cops in his pocket. The host wanted to screw the potential winner from the slums any way he could. He delivered Jamal out the back door of the studio and into the hands of the cops.

    The dancing scene at the end was an homage to Bollywood dance scenes. I’ve only seen a couple of Bollywood movies, but they all have scenes like that, frequently under the credits.

  • MBI

    “Such abusive, evil insults should be denounced as vociferously as possible.”

    Wow. “Pansy” is evil now. Holy fucking shit. Is this some kind of loaded, maybe homophobic slur I wasn’t aware of, or is everything just off-limits now? Regardless, I stand by my statements: if “Slumdog Millionaire” is too much for you to handle, you’re a complete wuss. This isn’t “Hostel.” It’s not “Snakes on a Plane.” We’re not even talking “Titanic” or “The English Patient” here. Seriously.

  • MaryAnn

    Calm down, MBI, or you’ll get deleted.

    No one said anything about “homophobia.” Take a look back at the comments responding to yours, and you’ll see that the issue is calling someone *any* derogatory name for naming a spade a spade: in this case, that the disturbing moments in this movie are intended to be disturbing.

    Not that homophobia will be tolerated here, either. But that’s not what others are calling you out on.

  • Inder

    Listen A Guy… what ever you say about the ending and the dance number, is because you do not have a wide taste in movies. The movie may be a hollywood film yet the original story was made by an indian writer, and most of the story is SET in India anyway. BOLLYWOOD movies usually contain dance numbers throughout whether the entire movie is horror/romance/action etc..

    The dance number at the end was a simple tribute to bollywood, as they just wanted a taste of it to be in the movie, if you consider the ending credits to be part of the main storyline. I watch all kinds of movies, Indian, American, Korean, Etc.

    Know your information…
    Another thing, the blinding scene.. This happens in the slums all the time even today, because the laws there aren’t as harsh as they are here, and poverty is a larger issue. The “eye” scene is nothing new to a viewer who is of south asian heritage, knowing that in those countries, these things happen all the time. Hostel, for you to even compare it to that, is utterly stupid. It is POSSIBLE that those events are possible, but its not like rich people in the world do these things for pleasure every day.

    The story is about destiny and how his entire life was focused to one day be on the show, where every qusetion would be related to experiences he has been through. Obviously you do not know what a good movie is, but Slumdog Millionaire is a great achievement, and if you do not know what a “classic bollywood dance number” is, then i suggest you do not say nothing about the ending, because it is just… TRADITION.

  • Vijay

    To any viewers doubtful of the believability of the blinding scene, or of why the police could or would torture a slum dweller – this stuff happens everyday in India. Take it from an Indian.
    Kids are blinded to make better beggars.

    Slum dwellers are routinely tortured by the police for flimsy pretexts or for no pretext(extortion). Then to secure the release of the slum dweller his women have to do the unspeakable with the cops.

  • iamtanmay

    Hmm. I thought the movie was quite realistic as far as day to day life in Mumbai or in general India is concerned. But, the scene where the adult Latika is nabbed off the train station was highly highly improbable. Security at that station is quite tight, even before the Mumbai attacks.

  • Brownian Motion

    The hell of the slum is laid bare in this film. The abject brutality and horror of daily living for these people is brought into sharp relief and cannot be denied. Other subtexts in the film, call center culture, the conceit of ‘bottled’ water, the overfed, clueless Westerners, the rift between Hindus and Muslims, etc.

    Frankly, I find movies like ‘Saw’ and ‘Hostel’ stupid due to their voyeuristic adoration of contrived torture. Why would anyone pay hard earned money to escape into a world filled with gore? We in the West live lives of such comfort that we vie to participate on ‘game shows’ where the illusion of danger is created (Survivor, Fear Factor) because the concept of being at rock bottom, as these slum dwellers are, is so alien to us.

    For those who haven’t seen other Bollywood movies, see a few. You’ll find that there is a dance number in most all of them, to the point (as was said earlier) that it is traditional. I think that the points that Inder and Vijay make are dead on; to Western sensibilities, we change the channel when confronted with the depravity of real evil (hence permitting Gitmo and other torture gulags). Other people don’t have that luxury.

  • t6

    I mostly liked SDM…but the thing that bothered me, and continues to bother me is the character of Latika.

    I know that SDM is a fairy tale. And I know that in fairy tales the princess is often just a passive object to be won by the Prince. But, dang! was she ever passive. She was so passive, with so little agency, that it just really bugged me. And it soured my enjoyment of the film the more I thought about it.

    Oh, and I know it is a bit late, but Pansy is indeed a homophobic slur.

  • Mathias

    Terrific film, i just had two problems with it that kept me from screaming about this film at the top of my lungs from rooftops:

    1) The final question REALLY strains credibility and unfortunately made me roll my eyes. This is supposed to be the toughest question they could come up with but apparently as this film tells us, most kids grew up reading it in school. I wondered why none of the millions of indians watching weren’t screaming the answer at the screen at the top of their lungs. The last question on Millionaire shouldn’t be that easy. And to make it even worse, it seems like he just guesses the right answer. We spend almost 2 hours learning all the amazing ways this kid knows these impossible answers and establishing this basic rule of the film and it just cheats at the very last moment. The film would’ve been better if he got it wrong but he didn’t care ‘cuz he got the girl in the end instead of just cheating and forcing a happy ending on the audience when this film seems to call for a bittersweet ending. An ending that really would’ve showed that money is nothing to compared to love.

    2) The protag’s brother, Salim, really could’ve used more filling in ‘cuz he’s just too one dimensional. He seems to exists only to put up obstacles for his brother and takes the girl of his brother’s dreams away an amazing three times.
    I started to wonder if he just wanted to keep his brother to himself in a sort of homoerotic/incestual way but it’s very apparent he doesn’t even give a crap about the one person in the world who loves him. And his final decision is just as bewildering. The screenwriter seems to have created this villian of cartoony proportions to fit the demands of the story at any given time.

  • bmcd

    I can see why this movie has Oscar bait written all over it. I also agree with one poster; it really was very difficult to watch. I have a strong stomach, and violence in movies doesn’t really bother me all that much. The blinding scene was WAY over the top however. I was exhausted (and nauseated) from watching this movie… I don’t think I could ever sit through it again.

  • ashok

    I actually thought that all politics aside, the second half of the film was shockingly bad. The acting was mostly mediocre-execrable (Frieda Pinto, I’m looking at you). And the dialogue. My goodness, the dialogue. It’s one of the worst written screenplays ever to be nominated for an oscar which says a lot. Every time the guy said ‘destiny’, bile started to boil up from my stomach. I understand that this was meant to be an homage to Bollywood-style escapism but Danny Boyle tried to have it both ways: Bollywood escapist fantasy AND serious urban drama. That just does not work. The ‘symbolism’ in the last 30 minutes was cringe-inducing. The feel-good ending either terribly crass if you’re reading the film as a political/sociological statement or just plain cliched and painfully trite if you’re reading it as a fun film along Bollywood lines.

    The movie has liberal guilt written all over its success (and I say this as a liberal so spare me the ‘rightwinger!’ yells). That combined with the inexplicable tendency of the Western (specially American) film press to pile accolades on all movies with any kind of foreign pedigree. If you look at the tomatometers of the foreign films, they’re almost inevitably above 80 percent. And some of those movies would never have cracked the ‘certified Fresh’ barrier had they been American films.

    And anyone who’s bringing up the word ‘realism’ in connection to this film is..well, misguided. A few gestures towards gritty urban realities aside (the blinding, the lack of hygiene etc), this is about as far from realistic as you could possibly get. The Wire, this isn’t.

    This may well be the worst movie Danny Boyle has ever made. I’ve always been a big fan of his and I hope he does better next time.

    Did like the first half (more or less), however.

  • http://www.emdashes.com Paul

    While the film had its moments, the frustrating thing about it was that it never really explained how exactly Jamal got chosen to be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or how he won out over other applicants. It seemed to breeze past that part of the story pretty quickly, or perhaps I missed it…

  • Alan

    What started like a great movie, left me with a feeling of disappointment in the end
    It’s not so much about the trademark Bollywood dancing number, as it is about disconnect of breath-taking realism of the first part with banal plot and
    dialog of the second (‘-This is our destiny -Kiss me’).
    Salim’s death is trite and laborious – the flip-flop traitor has no place in the candy sugar happy ending, so he dies an unnecessary death, redeeming his sins in the process.
    The plot gives a fleeting nod to Salim’s religiousness which is 100% not believable, doesn’t belong and seems to be planted there just for the sake of explaining his last act.

  • Paul

    He knew how to get on the show; he explained the necessary timing of the call to be a contestant in a near throw away line.

    Reading comments after having seen the movie, I find myself conceding some of the flaws, but not really caring. When Jamel answered the last question “A”, I quietly threw my hands up and some of the people sitting near me laughed at me but that was okay. I was that into it. Then I spent a few seconds hoping I had remembered the book correctly until the movie confirmed it so I wouldn’t look even more foolish.

  • Paul

    He knew how to get on the show; he explained the necessary timing of the call to be a contestant in a near throw away line.

    Reading comments after having seen the movie, I find myself conceding some of the flaws, but not really caring. When Jamel answered the last question “A”, I quietly threw my hands up and some of the people sitting near me laughed at me but that was okay. I was that into it. Then I spent a few seconds hoping I had remembered the book correctly until the movie confirmed it so I wouldn’t look even more foolish.