Director: Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan (co-director India)
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Ankur Vikal
On at: : Hollywood Multiplex, Cityplex, The Light, Movieplex
There can be few people left who have managed to avoid the Slumdog buzz, especially since it swept the board in February with eight Oscars. The story, in case you are one of the three people who haven't heard it, follows young Jamal (Dev Patel as an adult) on his journey from the Mumbai slums of his childhood to the precipice of a great fortune, courtesy of TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? But how can an uneducated pauper, a mere slumdog, possibly have correctly answered a series of tough questions? Slippery host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) smells a rat, and the Mumbai police haul Jamal in for what the Bush regime might euphemistically have termed “enhanced coercive interrogation techniques” (viewers of a sensitive nature may want to cover their eyes for the early scenes). Once unhooked from the electrodes, Jamal starts to explain that he got the answers right not through cheating, but because various episodes from his past, shown in flashback, each coincidentally corresponded to a question.
It's a novel premise for a film, and one that works well, largely because the flashbacks are such cracking stories. Humour, horror, love, crime and high drama are dished up in bite-sized chunks, against a colourful Indian backdrop. Whether it's the young Jamal burrowing out of the business end of an outdoor toilet to get his favourite Bollywood star's autograph, or a tense race-against-time reunion with his long lost love at a railway station, the vignettes are always gripping, even if they test the bounds of credibility too often.
Accompanied on his travels by his double-crossing brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), Jamal's goal is to find his childhood sweetheart Latika (Frieda Pinto), from whom he becomes separated in some of the most shocking scenes of the film. His nemesis is gangster Maman (Ankur Vikal), a recurring figure in the trio's lives. With its extremes of poverty and riches, broad-stroke archetypal characters and reliance on coincidence, there is something enjoyably Dickensian about Slumdog. Its good old-fashioned melodrama and thrills and spills galore make it hard not to be drawn in by this eminently likeable movie.
But eight Oscars? More than the Godfather and Godfather II? More than Casablanca? For all that it is an excellent piece of entertainment, Slumdog has a trite and predictable plot, one-dimensional characters and appeals entirely to the heart without troubling the head. If this was the most Oscar-worthy movie made in 2008 – and it could well have been – it does not say much for the current state of intelligent film. On the ethical side, the spectacle of the child actors involved being paraded at the Oscars' ceremony then shipped back to the slums in which they live was discomfiting – although the picture celebrates India as much as it censures it.
Such is Slumdog's charm, that it feels churlish to make such comparisons or criticisms. This is cinematic comfort food of the highest order.