I had a revelation during Slumdog Millionaire: Danny Boyle, at some point in his life, either voluntarily or unwillingly fell into a toilet. Toilets, and people entering toilets, seem to have shaped much of Danny Boyle’s career as a filmmaker.
His apparent obsession with putting actors into commodes, however, doesn’t speak to the quality or overall content of his latest film in any way, shape, or form. Boyle’s Slumdog, is based on a novel titled Q & A, written by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup and published in 2005. The basic plot of the film and the novel remain the same– a young man goes on a quiz show and wins millions, only to find himself arrested and detained on suspicion of cheating.
While I have not read the novel (it seems like I’m running into this problem a lot lately, though I have since read the latter book), I can still safely say that beyond the basic plot, the two works part ways. The hero of Q & A, for one, recounts the story of how he came to know all the answers to his lawyer; Slumdog‘s protagonist, Jamal (Dev Patal), finds himself persuading a police inspector of his innocence after being beaten and tortured in the movie’s opening. From here, the film begins to jump back and forth in time as Jamal tells the story of his life, and of how he subsequently came to know the answers, to his captors, and we learn that Jamal entered the game show in order to find the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto).
In flashing between past and present, Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle take their audience on a tour of an India rarely seen by American audiences, choosing to highlight the impecunious world from which our protagonists attempt to make exodus. In doing so they capture the poverty-stricken slums of Mumbai in vivid detail, turning a never-ending expanse of dulled tin roofs into a lush metal canopy aloft a winding urban jungle. Slumdog, if nothing else, looks fantastic, brimming with sumptuous imagery in each scene– every frame of the movie explodes with beauty, even when depicting the ugliness with which Jamal, his brother Salim, and the orphan Latika contend as children (such as the Hindu-Muslim riots, the event which ultimately sets Jamal on the path that leads him to enter the quiz show as a contestant). It would have been easy for Boyle and Mantle to consciously tone down the brutal reality the trio of kids, whose lives we follow for much of the film’s running time, live every day. Instead, they choose to give Slumdog real teeth, and as a result the film resonates and feels alive.
Much has been said about the movie’s faerie tale qualities, and comparisons have been drawn between it and the Bollywood movies which it references (most notably in the way young Jamal idolizes real life Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan). Truthfully, Slumdog falls into neither genre: It emphasizes the harshness of reality too much to be a faerie tale, and it lacks the melodrama that is so prevalent in many Bollywood films. There is no doubt that both of these elements are present (and in the case of the love story, prominent) in Slumdog, but neither defines it’s narrative. Primarily, the film is concerned with fate and coincidence, portraying how the structure of Jamal’s life enables him to not only correctly answer each question on the game show (even when he is fed incorrect answers), but also find and eventually reunite with Latika. The movie’s greatest strengths are it’s framework, and it’s precise organization of plot, which it favors over fully fleshed out characters. Even the protagonists are only drawn enough to give the audience the essentials of their personae. These are all traits of magic realism*, a genre that eschews “realistic” character development for the sake of original and captivating storytelling; even the masters of the genre, such as Marquez and Rushdie**, only developed their characters just enough to leave an impression, choosing instead to emphasize twists and turns in narrative and plot.
Some may argue that this is just an excuse for sloppy characterization, but those who do will also have to argue the same for other works in the genre Slumdog is operating within.
None of this is to say that the acting of Slumdog is disposable or an afterthought. While the structure is all important, it is the natural and emotional performances of the cast that give a hint of realism to a movie that by proxy operates outside of reality. Most notable are the performances of Patal and Pinto, whose minimal shared screen time makes the task of lending weight to their relationship more challenging. They are undoubtedly successful, though the achievement is as much due to their immediate and strong chemistry as it is due to the relationship established by the child actors portraying both characters at the youngest and middle phases of their lives. Patal and Pinto both are able to draw upon past interactions between their characters, and bring to the film’s surface a relationship that has slowly simmered beneath years of separation.
Perhaps, in the hands of another director, Slumdog would have given more time to develop and emphasize their relationship, which is undoubtedly central to the story. This would have served to better ground the film in reality, making it less beholden to magical realism, a genre that seems to have influenced Boyle’s film immensely. And perhaps for those who find the film’s time-spanning love story hard to swallow, the film would have worked better, but at the cost of what makes Slumdog unique and, ultimately, an utterly captivating piece of storytelling.
*A genre that, incidentally, has strong ties to India.
**Who I was somewhat surprised to learn did not particularly like the movie. Apparently it was too unbelievable for him.