Michael Wood on Slumdog Millionaire

At the Movies
Michael Wood

* Slumdog Millionaire directed by Danny Boyle (2009)

As the credits appear at the end of the movie, it turns abruptly into what it was always longing to be: a musical. The bright colours and the noise become decor and disco. The railway station, once the location of panic and poverty and violence, becomes scenery. The beat is heavy and fast, the hero and heroine line up together, happily stomping and pumping in the front row of a vast dancing crowd; everyone’s moves are vivid and complicated and beautifully choreographed. Even the trains look as if they want to get in on the act.

The movie is Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, now playing nearly everywhere and sporting ten Academy Award nominations. It’s a brittle and clever movie, often uncertain about its intentions, and sometimes, it seems, embarrassed about them, but the end is sheer pleasure and release, and allows us thoroughly to enjoy a fairy tale that has at times seemed threatened by one ogre too many. A great theme of musicals is getting things together and putting on a show – putting on a show by triumphantly getting things together – and Boyle and his writer Simon Beaufoy have assembled the pieces of their tricky subject into a tale of magic and luck, finally confessing through film genre how beautifully unlikely their resolution is.

There are two ways of describing the action of the movie, corresponding precisely to an old theoretical distinction between story and plot. The story recounts the lives of Jamal and his older brother Salim and their childhood companion Latika. We see the boys scrambling about the shanty world of Bombay, chased by policemen, up to tricks, skipping school, idolising a film star. They are orphaned when their mother is brutally killed in a riot; Latika seems never to have been anything other than an orphan. The trio are picked up by an ostensibly charitable gang of men who are actually running an elaborate begging operation using lost or stolen children – going so far as to blind some of them, the ones who sing well, since it is thought that blind singers collect twice as much in alms as sighted ones. The boys escape from the gang on a passing train, but Latika, who can’t run as fast as they can, is left behind. Jamal desperately wants to go back for her but Salim, ever the realist, who indeed had not wished to have Latika tagging along with them in the first place, insists that they have to keep going. They do, in a rather confusing montage which allows them to grow older between shots and to arrive at the Taj Mahal, where they start a promising business stealing tourists’ shoes, and where Jamal improvises a brief stint as a tour guide, offering completely fabricated facts about the monument, which he takes to be a posh hotel.

Back in Bombay, Jamal looks for Latika, with Salim’s reluctant help, and finds her working in a brothel run by the same men who operated the child beggar ring. Salim kills one of them, launching himself on his career as a gangster; and even, in his new tough persona, threatens Jamal with a gun. Latika begs him to leave, and he does. So far all three children have been (beautifully) played by two actors each, listed in the film’s credits as Youngest and Middle Jamal, Salim and Latika respectively, and they have been so perfectly placed at the centre of the action that all adults, even the cruellest, even the dead mother, seem to belong to another world. When we see the three chief characters again they have reached their final avatars, the forms of the actors Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal and Freida Pinto. Jamal is a tea-boy in a telephone company, Salim is chief bodyguard to the major enemy of the man he killed, and Latika is the boss’s mistress. Round about here Jamal becomes a contestant on the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and the story meets up with the plot.

The plot – the arrangement of events as distinct from the sequence of those events in ‘real’ time – centres on the show and opens with the grown-up Jamal being beaten up in a police station because he knew so many answers and now stands to win 20 million rupees. He must be cheating, but how? His interrogation and all the flashbacks it provokes take place between the next-to-last question and the last. Finally the police inspector believes his story and lets him go. Jamal is not cheating because by a peculiar and brilliant trail of coincidences every question he is asked connects to a moment in his life when a piece of otherwise useless information is available to him. Whose face is on the American hundred dollar bill? What implement is the iconic Indian god holding in his hand? When his chaotic biography doesn’t provide him with the answer, he asks the audience or phones a friend, as the show allows. And when they don’t know the answer, he guesses – right. At a key moment he is slipped an answer by the programme host, but is it the right one and should he use it? Who scored the most centuries in first-class cricket? Two incorrect answers have been taken away. Ricky Ponting and Jack Hobbs are left.

The show, in other words, provides the narrative structure of the film, but also something more: an atmosphere of chance and suspense, where the sheer tackiness of the trademark mode of presentation gives us a kind of parody of destiny. The vaguely threatening sci-fi music, the eerie lighting, the repeated questions, the long pauses, the parade of the four possible answers, and in this case the acting of Anil Kapoor as a wonderfully creepy Indian version of Chris Tarrant – it all looks like bad media magic. The film implicates us too by giving us right at the beginning a version of the show’s four answers, in this case to the question of how Jamal can get so many responses right: A. He knows; B. He’s cheating; C. He’s lucky; D. It is written. In a very fine joke on its own status the movie explicitly settles on D, and goes straight into the rousing musical credits.

The uncertainty and embarrassment of the film’s direction have to do with the sheer misery it dives into and flies over. In the early sections, everything happens too fast and is too brightly lit: it feels like tourism in poverty, and perhaps reflects a tension between Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, his Indian co-director. I have to say, though, that if I were protesting about the film, as certain groups in India are, it would not be about pictures of poverty or the word slumdog but about the images of torture in a Bombay police station, where Jamal is badly beaten up and given vicious electric shocks just because he knows things above his notional class. The war on error, perhaps.

What leads the film out of its uncertainty and embarrassment is both the sheer intricacy of the plot and its flashbacks, the ingenuity of the connections between Jamal’s life and his quiz questions, and the interesting and awkward story hiding behind the appearances of conventional romance. Jamal feels terrible about leaving Latika behind with the mutilating bad guys – was it his hand or Salim’s that lost hold of her as she was running for the train? – and he may have turned this regret into what he regards as the love of his life. He certainly wants to marry her, and surely just not for old times’ sake. She tries to leave the gangster and go away with Jamal but is caught at the railway station and slashed across the face as a punishment. Still, the scar is almost an addition to her beauty, and we are now a long way from the horrors of the blinded children. The erratic Salim, sometimes protective of his brother, sometimes dismissive of him, decides to give his life in order to let Latika get away when she tries a second time, and we are into the full-blown sacrificial melodrama with a happy ending. This is how Latika and Jamal get to dance together under the final credits.

It’s a happy ending not because the two slum children, the office boy and the prostitute, have found each other again, but because Jamal’s failed acts of rescue have succeeded at last – after the quiz show. This conclusion – the fairy-tale rescue rather than the fairy-tale love story – takes us straight back to what may be the film’s most powerful image. The two boys, all alone because their mother is dead, find a place to shelter from the torrential rain. Out in the rain, like a tiny drenched wraith, is the shivering Latika, some five or six years old. Jamal wants to let her into the shelter, Salim says it’s just for them. Jamal invites her join them. The literary motif lurking here is that of the three musketeers, a book the boys fail to study properly at school, and the only book we ever see them look at. Even so, Jamal doesn’t know, when asked on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, who the third musketeer is. He manages to guess right, a move which in turn prefigures the happy ending, but also hides part of its pathos. All too often there are only two musketeers, and we can’t save the third. Indeed, this cruel logic appears to apply even when we can save the third: although Latika is rescued, Salim is now dead. The romance story neatly covers up the casualty, since after all in love duets there are only two players.

Michael Wood teaches at Princeton. His most recent book is Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.


  1. Qalandar
    February 5, 2009 at 8:49 AM

    Good piece, although I disagree that the choreography of Jai Ho was “beautifu[l]”; was amused to see that he finds the sequence where the young kids turn into older kids “confusing”…for those of us brought up on B’wood, that was par for the course.

    [Random aside: my favorite such sequence is the one in Pukar, when the kid being beaten up emerges as Amitabh].

  2. Qalandar
    February 5, 2009 at 8:52 AM

    Yes satyam, that is a very apt paragraph to quote. That torture is one of the reasons why I can’t just see it as a fairy tale ending: nothing can “make up” for that torture, or the casualness with which it is administered. In a week where we have all seen images of that Etawah cop casually beat up a 6-year old girl accused of tehft, while colleagues look on, we cannot lie to ourselves that is an unrealistic portrait.

  3. Som
    February 6, 2009 at 10:02 PM

    Good piece here. Thanks for posting Satyam.

    “In a week where we have all seen images of that Etawah cop casually beat up a 6-year old girl accused of tehft, while colleagues look on, we cannot lie to ourselves that is an unrealistic portrait”

    Absolutely Qalandar.Some of the reactions in India have just been outrageous.

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