In Slumdog Millionaire, the contrast between wealth and impoverishment is sustained but never entertained in direct terms. Danny Boyle’s fairy-tale foray into Mumbai’s underbelly juxtaposes the frenetic desperation of the slums with the cool affluence of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire set, and compares its affable protagonist, Jamal, with the sleek and callous men who run the show. The popular game itself can be seen as a mockery of working-class aspirations, since it dangles huge sums of cash above the heads of participants. The tension of the film stems from the fact that the truly disenfranchised are believed by the upper class to be incapable of success. Jamal elicits incredulousness, then suspicion, then scorn as he continues jumping the trivia obstacles placed before him.
The flashbacks that illustrate Jamal’s explanation of how he came to know each question’s answer require a considerable amount of suspended disbelief. Boyle uses a fantastical story of underdog triumph that relies heavily on cross-cultural intrigue and romantic clichés to indict classist condescension and to promote a more fair-minded definition of intelligence and dignity. The game’s host becomes a despicable character for his attempts to preclude Jamal’s success despite his own origins in the slums of Mumbai. There is a glint of grotesquerie in the ways copious amounts of money and power are shown to corrupt and enervate one’s empathy. This devolution also applies to Jamal’s brother, who morphs into an unctuous beast of violence and indulgence once he becomes a gangster’s soldier. These character types and arcs are not new by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite rewarding, amidst all the pleasure of rich visuals and suspense, to witness the victory of a dignified, perspicacious member of the underclass.
KEVIN LANGSON’S TOP TEN:
1. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin, Germany, 2007)
2. Milk (Gus Van Sant, USA)
3. Megalopolis (Francesco Conversano and Nene Grignaffini, Italy)
4. The Visitor (Thomas McCarthy, USA)
5. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, Spain/USA)
6. Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, USA)
7. Savage Grace (Tom Kalin, Spain/USA/France, 2007)
8. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, UK/India)
9. Still Life (Jia Zhangke, China/Hong Kong, 2006)
10. Meadowlark (Taylor Greeson, USA)