From 1996's acerbic Trainspotting to the soulful horror of 2002's 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle's best films are bold, stylised works filled with rare wit and energy. After 2007's Sunshine, a somewhat frustrating experiment with science fiction, few would have predicted that Boyle would expand his repertoire even further. Slumdog Millionaire is his most ambitious project yet, with the most challenging of subjects: India. Set in Bombay, the film's very premise demands a knowledge and sensitivity that recent cinematic forays into India have lacked, and which Boyle delivers.
Based on a novel by former Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, the film is composed as a series of non-linear flashbacks filmed documentary-style. When accused of cheating while competing to win 20 million rupees on India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Jamal Malik, an eighteen-year-old orphan "slumdog" from Bombay, reflects on his tumultuous childhood.
Extensive editing and repetition of imagery colours Boyle's Bombay with an eerie familiarity and a singular aesthetic. Buoyed by the avant-Bollywood musical stylings of AR Rahman, the film moves at an exhilarating pace, following Jamal from his fecal encounter with Amitabh Bachhan to the death of his mother during Hindu-Muslim riots to his work as a 'chai wala' in a telemarketing centre.
For a film so colossal in scope, Slumdog's charms lie not in the straightforward and seemingly sentimental plotline (as the cheesy trailers would have you believe) but in its understated direction and attention to detail. This is exemplified by the way Boyle directs newcomer Freida Pinto as Latika, Jamal's childhood friend and lost love. In spite of the enormous importance of Latika's character in the story, the role entails little actual screen time and relies more on the actor's natural presence and the nuanced editing of images interspersed throughout the film. The acting rarely falls short of the excellent cinematography: the child actors who play Jamal and his brother Salim are impeccably directed, largely overshadowing their older counterparts, while veterans Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan are sharp, comical contrasts to the innocent exuberance of the rest of the cast.
Just as importantly, the film seldom falls into the pitfall of catering solely to a foreign audience. There are awkward moments in which Patel's British inflection can be heard and his character's English sometimes comes off as implausibly refined; however, for the most part, the screenplay is consistently well researched and authentic.
While movies produced in Bombay delve increasingly into the fantasy worlds of the Indian elite, Slumdog Millionaire portrays the genuine, grotesque Bombay: both a realistic portrait of contemporary India and an all-encompassing one. In spite of its fairytale plot, the film touches on contemporary Indian phenomena such as media mass hysteria, 'India Shining', beggar syndicates, child prostitution, police corruption and communal religious violence. Few feature films of recent times have dared or even tried to depict any of these realities. The film ends, fittingly, with a rousing, tasteful, Bollywood-inspired dance sequence set on a platform of VT station, where last month's terrorist attacks
Slumdog is both an aesthetic triumph and a crowd-pleasing success. Boyle has proven that even the simplest of storylines, if told intelligently with heart and style, can be uplifting.
REVIEW by MILAP DIXIT