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 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.
Oscars Best Picture 2008