In this film, it’s every Slumdog for himself

Danny Boyle’s Mumbai melodrama reduces humanity to a collection of brutal oppressors and helpless victims.

Rob Lyons

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Another week, another gong. On Sunday, Slumdog Millionaire picked up the best ensemble prize at the Screen Actors Guild awards to go with the Golden Globe, Critic’s Choice and Producers Guild of America titles. The movie is the warm favourite to pick up the top prize of ‘best picture’ at the Oscars next month, too. But for a film described by one critic as the ‘feel-good movie of the decade’ and by another as a ‘buoyant hymn to life’, it has a pretty low view of humanity.

Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal, who grows up as an orphan in the Mumbai slums with his brother, Salim. Their mother is killed in an anti-Muslim pogrom while the police sit idly by, and they are forced to fend for themselves, picking through rubbish tips or making a pittance through a variety of scams. They meet a young girl, Latika, who they befriend and, inspired by a rare, overcrowded school lesson, they christen themselves the ‘three musketeers’.

The three eventually fall into the hands of a gangster, Maman (played by Ankur Vikal), who appears to be their saviour, but is in fact, rather like Fagin in Oliver Twist, simply interested in exploiting them by sending them out to beg. Eventually, Jamal and Salim escape his clutches, but they are forced to leave Latika behind. Jamal is distraught and the rest of the film revolves around his attempts to find and rescue her.

Many twists and turns aside, Jamal’s mission comes down to appearing on TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, presented by the slimy and sarcastic Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor). The now-adult Jamal (Dev Patel) goes on an extraordinary run in the quiz in which a long series of consecutive correct answers leads to the astonishing jackpot of 20million rupees (roughly £250,000). But his success arouses suspicion. How could an uneducated boy from the slums know all the answers? When time runs out on the show with him just one question away from the top prize, he is arrested backstage, on the assumption that he must be a fraud, and taken away for interrogation.

The fact that this is a ‘feel-good’ movie means that the eventual outcome is not terribly difficult to guess. But while the plot is implausible for a variety of reasons, this is still an enjoyable, if corny film. There’s a simple, but powerful moral question at the heart of it: how should you respond to terrible poverty and adversity? The brothers Jamal and Salim provide two different answers. Jamal is a good-hearted petty criminal trying to get out of the slums to a better life; Salim becomes a gangster himself, though he still looks out for his fellow ‘musketeers’.

Nor is this moral question easily answered. While Jamal is appalled at his brother’s behaviour, Salim’s willingness to use a gun is what saves all three of them when Maman corners them as teenagers. Time and again, it is Salim’s brutal power that saves the day, despite the fact that he has himself become a nasty piece of work.

It’s easy to see why the film has been picking up awards. It is a classic triumph-over-tragedy story given a sharp edge by the threatening undertone, inventive photography and clubby soundtrack that are recurring features of director Danny Boyle’s previous work, including Trainspotting and The Beach.

But the film has its critics, too. Alice Miles, writing in The Times (London) described it as ‘poverty porn’. Miles quotes an Indian academic living in America who writes: ‘Slumdog’s eventual victory comes at a price. When the selective manipulation of Third World squalor can make for a feel-good movie in a dismal year, the global village has a long way to go.’ (1) In fact, Slumdog goes further. Not content to portray mere abject poverty as sufficient cause to win the audience’s sympathy, it cranks up the brutality by showing small children having their eyes put out with acid to increase their effectiveness as beggars.

Director Danny Boyle wanted to show how people rise above such conditions: ‘[T]he thing I wanted people to take away from the film, which I found and Simon [Beaufoy] the screen writer sensed in his script, is this breathtaking, breathtaking resilience of people, and the joy of people, despite their circumstances, that lust for life.’ (2)

Yet the presentation of Indian people in Slumdog is shallow and profoundly depressing. While there is at least some depth to the portrayal of the brothers, every other character in the film falls into one of three categories: victim, spectator or bastard.

Latika, despite being a central figure, is merely an object of men’s desires. While Jamal loves her, every other man – including Salim at one point – abuses her. At no point does she ever appear capable of controlling her own destiny. The gangsters are one-dimensionally terrible men. Even the quizmaster simply wants to belittle Jamal and to prevent him from winning. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that a quiz show could ever be hosted by someone so mean-spirited in public to a contestant. These are childishly drawn, cartoon villains.

Even more ludicrous is the portrayal of the Mumbai police. The Indian police have had considerable negative publicity for their behaviour in the past, so it is easy to believe that they might be willing to use less-than-legal methods to get a confession. In Slumdog, however, it is less like The Sweeney and more like Abu Ghraib. It stretches credulity when their first response to a suspected quiz show fraud is to beat the suspect up then hang him by his wrists while torturing him with electric shocks, as happens in the opening minutes of the film. Yet hours later, the police generously believe Jamal’s intricate explanation of how he knows the answers to the particular questions he was set and he returns to the show to attempt the final, jackpot question.

Even if we take Boyle’s intended message at face value, there is something rather nauseating about glorifying the resilience of the slum-dwellers. Such a message tends to suggest that there is something noble about being poor. This is a romantic view of poverty that appeals to the middle classes in the West rather than reflecting the aspirations of the poor. Indeed, Slumdog is even worse, because it actually paints a picture of Mumbai in which no one appears to lend anyone else a helping hand, apart from the tourists guilt-tripped into handing over a few rupees to the children begging at their car windows.

Slumdog has been frequently described as ‘Dickensian’ and it bears comparison with Oliver Twist. Both are the tales of poor boys who by miraculous good fortune are saved from an intolerable existence. But Oliver’s life is a tug-of-war between good and evil. Evil, in the shape of the workhouse, and criminals like Fagin and Bill Sykes; good, as represented by Mr Brownlow and the Maylies, his eventual rescuers. Where Dickens’ work demands that good people should strive to make the lives of the poor better, Boyle and Beaufoy seem to wallow in malevolence and victimhood. Jamal’s eventual triumph and reunion with Latika is ultimately not down to his own efforts; it is simply ‘written’.

Where Dickens used his writing to illuminate the lives of the have-nots, if admittedly in a rather melodramatic and paternalistic fashion, you will learn little or nothing about life in the slums by watching Slumdog Millionaire. Instead, the depressing message seems to be that unless you want to be on the receiving end of the inherent evil of humanity, it’s every slumdog for himself.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Watch the trailer for Slumdog Millionaire:

Read on:

spiked-issue: Film

(1) Shocked by Slumdog’s poverty porn, The Times (London), 14 January 2009

(2) Slumdog Millionaire opens in Mumbai, ABC Radio Australia

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