"Slumdog" : The Little Movie That Could.

“Slumdog Millionaire.” A film directed by Danny Boyle, co-directed by Loveleen Tandan, screenplay written by Simon Beaufoy and Vikas Swarup from his novel, “Q & A.” Starring Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto, Madhur Mittal, and Anil Kapoor.

By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith
British Director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later”) thought his fifteen million dollar film would go direct to DVD because he couldn’t find a distributor. Once he did, “Slumdog Millionaire” opened in January in a handful of art-houses in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In November 2008, alleged Islamic radicals attacked Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel, the Oberoi Trident Hotel, the Jewish-run Nariman House, and other sites. They shot and killed hundreds in the Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus train station where, during its closing credits, the film’s amazing, joyous Bollywood dance was performed by the “Slumdog” cast and crew. Boyle had said in an interview on BBC World Service that he was devastated by the attacks on the city, and the people, he had come to love. He regretted that the resulting notoriety brought “Slumdog” to a larger audience. The film opened nationwide and gained a significant following, with attendance jumping to over 200 per cent in the first week after its initial limited release. The film has won major international awards, including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Original Song, and Film Score, among others.

The film, shot in brilliant, saturated color, takes place in Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and is in Hindi and English, with subtitles. “Slumdog” is a love story, an epic fairy tale. It tracks the lives of three characters through whom you will experience that city’s egregious disparity between social classes; religious oppression, game show popularity, chance, petty and serious crime, prostitution, Indian pop culture, family, child kidnapping and abuse, the tourist trade, and rival crime lords.

The film opens with Jamal on the game show, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire!” He is ready for the final question that will make him rich beyond anyone’s dream. The fact that horrific and dire circumstances in his life up to this point have burned memories in his brain, which have given him all the answers so far, leads the host to suspect Jamal of cheating and has him secretly arrested. The show is suspended, pending the results of the investigation. The entire city of Mumbai - - from the slums, to the rich hotels, upscale markets, to the condos - - is on tenterhooks. The police sergeant and a bad cop literally torture him. Director Boyle doesn’t hold back on showing these scenes, making for some gut-wrenching reactions. Interspersed with the interrogations and scenes of Jamal answering the previous questions are flashbacks, depicting his life from orphaned child to a yearning, love-struck young man who risks his life to find Latika. True to a fairy-tale or fable, the hero must outwit the bad guys before he can win the maiden (although, Latika, now a lovely, young woman, is no longer a “maiden,” in the Puritanical sense of the word, due to the oppressive life she has had to endure with rival mob bosses).

The film follows the lives Jamal and his brother, Salim, who are orphaned when their mother is brutally slain by Hindu police as they and a mob they incite storm their Mumbai Muslim shanty town. Thus begins their saga and that of Latika, played as adolescents by local children. When they are shown in their early twenties, Jamal, the innocent, is played by Dev Patel; streetwise, crafty Salim, by Madhur Mittal, and Latika, by the beautiful Frieda Pinto. They survive by their wits and are taken in by a Fagin-like charmer who comes off as an altruistic NGO relief worker. The boys witness atrocities wreaked on other kids so they’ll bring in more money while begging (a nod to “Three Penny Opera” here, as well). They escape. Latika is left behind. Jamal searches for her. The boys age; Salim gets the girl. He has the money and a gun. Jamal ends up as a chai-walla (tea server) for a large tech information center. By chance, when Jamal subs for a tekkie on a break, he inadvertently gets selected to be a contestant on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire!” [Note: This tiny but crucial bit of information on how he was selected appeared in the limited January release, but had been cut from the new print, distributed for wide release.] The TV game show is hosted by a pompadoured, Prem Kumar (played by a remarkable Anil Kapoor, whose wonderful performance was overlooked by the entire circuit of awards venues.)

Once the film became a hit, detractors cried out. Their issues had to do with the depiction of Mumbai’s slums as “tourist attractions,” where wealthy travelers could go slumming in the “slum dogs’,” (i. e. the children of the slums’) neighborhoods. Some described the film as “poverty porn” and opined that the people of India were exploited in the making of the film. Early on, critics said that the British filmmakers hired only a white crew. One look at the extensive credits tells a different story. One has only to Google the film’s title to discover the truth about how Boyle made his remarkable film, which is based on a novel called “Q & A.” by Indian writer Vikas Swarup. These myopic critics - - the majority being Indians still licking wounds suffered under British colonialism over sixty years ago - - saw an entirely different film than I did. A January 2009 Los Angeles Times article by Mark Magnier, was titled: “Indians don’t feel good about ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’.” He wrote that some critics accused the film of “exploiting western perceptions of India, with its depictions of impoverished slums ruled by gangsters, as well as other unwholesome characters.” Magnier went on to state that many critics argue that although the film features many Indian actors, it is “anything but Indian.” He claims that the reason for its success is due to its themes and timing “which touch a cord with Western audiences.”

The Times also quoted from interviews with a variety of cultural commentators, including Shyamal Sengupta, a Mumbai film professor of Whistling Woods Institute, who stated, “It’s a white man’s imagined India. It’s not quite snake charmers, but it’s close. It’s a poverty tour.” “The struggles with poverty and the camera’s eye in ‘Slumdog,’ ” Sengupta went on, “certainly doesn’t shy away from this fact.” According to Indian film expert Rochona Majumdar, “A lot of people felt it was bashing India, but,” she says, “I disagree. We’re too quick to celebrate ‘Incredible India.’ But there is an underbelly. To say we don’t have problems is absurd.”

Despite these critiques, many are upbeat on the film’s financial prospects in India, with film director Shekhar Kapur saying that “what’s most important is that ‘Slumdog’ is the most successful Indian film ever.” Even Sengupta believes that Indians will attend the film to see how they are viewed by Westerners. “There is still a fascination with seeing how we are perceived by white Westerners. It’s a kind of voyeurism.” If Indian critics want realism, make a documentary. Some took issue with French filmmaker, Louis Malle’s 1969, inspirational, documentary film, “Phantom India,” an eye-opening, incredibly gorgeous tribute to that country.

“Slumdog Millionaire” has garnered even more controversy since it won an Oscar for Best Picture, beating out the timely (Proposiiton 8) political film, “Milk.” “Poverty Porn” was the topic on a recent NPR Talk of the Nation program. The interviewees were two female, Indian educators: one from Ireland, Priya Rajsekar, freelance writer born in India. She wrote the article “Slumdog Sacrifices Indian Pride” for The Irish Times. On the air, she stated that the film pandered to the rich elite in its “feel good” scenes of poverty. She went on to say that it “gives an incomplete view of the slums of India.” And that it wallows in tired clichés of abysmal poverty and mindless villainy. In her article, she wrote, “but for the little Indian ‘slumdogs’ who have given the movie its soul, this is a fleeting moment. For when the clock strikes midnight, these people who have helped createt many millionaires around the world will return to their tarpaulin-roof homes, to take their usual place beside their colleagues, too proud and too dignified to ‘ask for more.’ ”

Chitra Divakaruni, is a poet and professor at the University of Houston. Her article, "The Slumdog Fight," appeared in the Los Angeles Times. On NPR, she responded to Priya Rajsekar, saying that the film is not “poverty porn.” She cited Charles Dickens as an artist who, through his work, changed child labor laws in England, and that Danny Boyle follows in that tradition. Rajsekar shot back that Boyle “did not have to cover poor people in human waste to get his message across.” [On BBC, Boyle explained that the “human waste” was a mixture of milk chocolate and peanut butter.] She complained that the film didn’t show whole lives. In her article and on NPR, she comes off harsh and gives the impression that she would rather the film be a documentary. Divakaruni, however, replied that slum tours may embarrass native governments into stepping up to inject funds into poor areas. Danny Boyle, himself, offered to buy flats for the kids’ families. But government officials stepped in and said, “No, give us the money and we’ll buy them the flats.” However, in an interview on BBC’s World TV, about “Slumdog,” Boyle implied that he had discovered that previous funding from the Indian government had somehow disappeared. In this same interview, he told his host that in addition to paying them, he felt it most important that the kids go to school so that they would have an education when they grew up. So he is setting up an educational fund, as well as money for housing.

A caller to the NPR broadcast, Eric Weiner, author of “The Geography of Bliss,” had lived in New Delhi, India for two years. He wrote "Slum Visits: Tourism or Voyeurism" for The New York Times. He said that he’d seen people who’d traveled to the slums express surprise seeing the joy they found there, but went on to say that that’s no excuse for oppression or exploitation of the poor, especially children and families who literally lived on the street and employed their craft in that environment. “Slumdog Millionaire” illustrates this with a scene of a barber shaving a man as people strolled past and kids ran around him.

Director Boyle takes criticism of his film in stride. He has stated that the movie seeks to depict the “breathtaking resilience” of Mumbai and the “joy of people despite their circumstances, that lust for life.” Though the film, coming as it did on the heels of the Mumbai attacks, has turned the world’s focus on that city’s internal affairs, it in no way diminishes the impact of that tragic event. As Boyle and others have stated: the positive, optimistic attitude of the people will pull them through anything, just as it did prior to, during, and after two-hundred plus years of British rule. This is evident in the uplifting, rollicking Bollywood dance, featuring a cast of hundreds that closes “Slumdog Millionaire.”