I so rarely get the chance to write this: here's a film that reminds me of Max Bygraves's 1970s chart classic, The Deck of Cards. This heartwarming monologue (originally recorded in the 40s) narrates the story of a humble soldier, hauled out of a church parade by a furious sergeant for playing cards. Before his disgusted commanding officer can send him to the glasshouse, this poor semi-literate squaddie explains that for him, the deck of cards is his Bible: the Ace is the one true God, the two is the Two Testaments, the three the Holy Trinity - and so on until the gruff CO, like Bygraves's entire listening public, is reduced to a quivering tearful jelly at this simple soldier's dignity and piety.
Something very similar happens in this wildly silly but perfectly watchable melodrama, adapted by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy from the 2005 novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup and directed by Danny Boyle. Despite being overpraised - it arrives garlanded with the kind of reviews that must have come out after the opening night of King Lear - this is still very effective entertainment.
The movie is about the Indian version of the hit TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Dev Patel plays Jamal Malik, a former Mumbai street-kid who has a job making tea at a call centre. He astonishes all of India by entering the show as a contestant and triumphantly getting question after question right. Is he a fraud? A savant genius? Or is something weird going on? His amazing winning streak means he has to come back the next evening for the final big-money question and overnight he is brutally interrogated by Mumbai cops convinced he is a cheat. They take him through each of the questions he got right, and Jamal's life story unfolds in flashback as our hero reveals that each question, like each of Max Bygraves's cards, has a special significance. His tale involves crime, drama, knockabout comedy and romance. Various characters determine his fate: his gangster brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), the love of his life Latika (Freida Pinto) and Prem (Anil Kapoor), the creepy quizmaster himself, who has his own interest in Jamal's staggering success.
This movie has interesting antecedents. It is not the first to be made about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Patrice Leconte's 2006 film My Best Friend, starring Daniel Auteuil, features a nailbiting edition of the French version of Millionaire. Leconte's film, like Boyle's, culminates with a "phone a friend" showstopper and both cheekily suggest the show is transmitted live, when, in real life, it is of course recorded and edited well in advance, at least partly to weed out the cheats.
I have some knowledge of all this, incidentally. I was once the "friend" telephoned by a contestant on the show but at the crucial moment, my mobile phone was, shamingly, out of range. Chris Tarrant's face was reportedly a picture of polite bemusement as my voicemail message echoed pointlessly around the studio, before being smartly cut off and the contestant was permitted to phone another "friend". Naturally, hiccups like that don't make it on to air.
Slumdog Millionaire is co-produced by Celador Films, owners of the rights to the original TV show, and so it functions as a feature-length product placement for the programme, whose apotheosis here came when would-be cheat Major Charles Ingram tried to scam the quiz in 2001. All he got was a suspended sentence, a fine and minor celebrity status, and the show got mouthwatering publicity. In this film, poor Jamal is, simply on suspicion of wrongdoing, beaten to a pulp by the police and horribly tortured with electrodes - the nastiest interrogation scene I've watched for a while. But afterwards he makes it into the studio as fresh as a daisy. What the Mumbai police make of their unflattering portrayal, I can't imagine.
Despite the extravagant drama and some demonstrations of the savagery meted out to India's street children, this is a cheerfully undemanding and unreflective film with a vision of India that, if not touristy exactly, is certainly an outsider's view; it depends for its full enjoyment on not being taken too seriously.
Interestingly, the co-creator of Millionaire, Steven Knight, is himself a screenwriter who has scripted far more serious films than this: Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things (also co-produced by Celador) and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. Slumdog Millionaire really is gentle compared with, say, Robert Redford's satire Quiz Show and softcore compared with Danny Boyle's famous movies, Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. In fact, it's more of a kids' yarn, like his wacky caper Millions.
Well, for all this, it's got punch and narrative pizzazz: a strong, clear, instantly graspable storyline that doesn't encumber itself with character complexity, and the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is tremendous. It's definitely got that quirky-underdog twinkle and the silverware glint of awards can't be far away.
In what ways does the Bollywood movie industry influence this film?
The influence of the Bollywood movie industry is evident in the movie in quite a number of ways, but the most obvious is in the final scenes of the film when Latika and Jamal perform a flamboyant and colorful song and dance scene, which is a signature of Bollywood. The scene involves many characters and is expertly choreographed, adding another layer of fantasy to the movie. The film is also a story of romance between two unlikely characters who face insurmountable odds to have a romantic relationship that seems impossible, yet Bollywood-style the odds are beaten and the young lovers "live happily ever after". The intertwining of a relatively gritty story and circumstances with music and a fairy tale ending bears the classic hallmarks of Bollywood and the director, Danny Boyle, has stated he was influenced by, and wanted to draw inspiration from, Bollywood.
There are several sets of circumstances in the movie that seem literally unbelievable. What are some of these, and do they detract from the overall believability and enjoyment of the movie?
Jamal was orphaned as a child and grew up on the streets of the slums of Calcutta, getting by hustling for money, and children who grow up like this have little access to education. He would most likely have been preyed upon by gangsters far sooner and his fate would not have been positive. It is unlikely that in real life he could have ended up on a game show, especially not a game show with the popularity of "Millionaire." As a street kid he might not be able to read and write and so the initial test to get on the show would have been impossible for someone of his education level. Later, after he is questioned by the police, they show a benevolence that is quite hard to believe, returning him to the television studio and allowing him to finish the game. Finally, the fact that Latika was able to escape the warehouse and her captors, and meet him at the railway station is also stretching credibility a little bit as when discovered missing she would most certainly have been killed as a punishment. However, these factors do not really detract from the film because it is in essence a beautiful love story, and we want the two characters to win in the end and live happily ever after. Winning a gameshow is a fantasy for anyone at all, whatever their circumstances, and so it is not such a suspension of disbelief for the audience to accept the fact that he is on the show, however unlikely it is given his circumstances.
As they get older, Jamal and his brother change, and grow apart. Why do you think Jamal retains his good character when his brother does not?
Jamal seems to be a dreamer. He is an essentially nice kid protected from the worst parts of living in a slum by his older brother. This is not as pressurized as being the older brother with a kid brother to protect. Jamal's brother saw association with a gangster as easy money, and money was what they needed in order to improve their lot in life. We are said to be who we spend time with and so being in such close proximity to a gangster who is basically a killer and an abuser of young people obviously rubs off, and he becomes much more like his new boss. He even sacrifices his brother in order to curry favor with his boss. Later in the movie, when he is called upon to literally decide between his brother and his cohorts, he chooses his brother, and does the right thing. He is clearly a more easily influenced young man than Jamal but he also had a lot more pressure on him to get money and be the adult at such a young age; without an adult guiding him he fell under the influence of the only adult offering him any leadership or example, however bad it be.