Danny Boyle has a flair for the apocalyptic. Trainspotting’s junkies famously dived into a scummy toilet for a hit. 28 Days Later conjured an eerie, strangely beautiful London depopulated by all but rats and zombies. And the scientists in Sunshine were on a mission to blow up the sun to save an ailing earth. Slumdog Millionaire, the director’s latest, has plenty of misery to go around, but it’s wrapped up in a tidy (albeit clever) romantic bow that makes its characters’ tribulations feel a bit contrived. Still, Slumdog Millionaire is an unabashed epic and a compelling one at that, so viewers can forgive its genre conventions.
Slumdog Millionaire has been described as Dickens transplanted to millennial Mumbai. Jamal is eighteen years old and about to hit the jackpot on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But he’s not after the money. Rather, he hopes that his performance wins over Natika, the girl of his dreams. Jamal’s life story (abject poverty and time spent in a seriously deranged “orphanage”) and his budding romance with Natika are related via flashbacks that explain how a lowly chaiwalla (tea server) knows answers that have stopped even the country’s upper-crust lawyers and doctors in their tracks.
Boyle’s movies alternately revere and subvert or modernize tired genre tropes. 28 Days Later was a zombie movie, but its zombies didn’t lumber; they hauled ass. Slumdog Millionaire alludes to Bollywood, India’s gargantuan and often garish movie industry, and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle employs the same vibrant color palette. But Boyle doesn’t shy away from the country’s underbelly. (Indian censors are expected to have a field day.) Audiences pulled in by Fox Searchlight’s sunny advertising campaign—“A buoyant hymn to life!”—will be shocked by much of the film’s violence and despair.
The rags portion of this Horatio Alger tale is more compelling than the riches that Jamal and his malevolent brother Salim (a complex character well-played by Madhur Mittal) acquire. Their progress parallels Mumbai’s transformation into a modern, skyscraping metropolis where luxury glass towers replace filthy, destitute slums. (Jamal, in a funny bit, works at a call center.) Boyle takes an ambivalent view on the city’s evolution. Does it owe more to Jamal’s good-hearted pluck and fortunate destiny (“It is written”) or Salim’s criminal ruthlessness? In the end it is a composite of the two, but Boyle is more interested in the painful means that accompany such a metamorphosis than the end.
Slumdog Millionaire has many joyous moments and such likeable characters that the audience winds up rooting for them. But you can’t help but think that Boyle is a bit hesitant about a happy ending.