It is Written:
Slumdog Millionaire and the Power of Inevitability
Around these parts, it usually takes two things to make me write about a piece of cinema: first it has to be really, really good, and the second is that it has to have some connection to television as a medium. This is a self-imposed standard: I know that there are very few “pure” television readers of this blog (and comparatively “few” readers period), and that everyone is usually interested to hear about a great film. But I’m not a film reviewer, and my critical eye for it hasn’t really been developed, so being able to link it back into the world of television gives me a bit of a comfort level.
It was a comfort level that was in full effect as I watched my first “awards season” film of the year, the powerful and stunning Slumdog Millionaire from British director Danny Boyle. The film is about a Mumbai slumdog on the Indian version of “Who Want’s To Be A Millionaire?”, and diverges throughout the film into how Jamal got to the point wherein he could be on this show, answering these questions, and placed in this position. The structure of the film is clear within the first few minutes: you nod your head, accept what the film is trying to accomplish, and then begin the process of appreciating the stunning cinematography, the wonderful direction, the great child acting performances, and the stunning music.
The film’s conclusion is inevitable, not in terms of result but in structure: you know how the film will progress, and by the time you reach that moment you are capable of choreographing every step of the way. But by the end, presuming you’ve been watching all along, Slumdog Millionaire will rouse an audience like few other films. It is about the smallest of realizations, the broadest of events, and a fine example of how very powerful a film like this can be.
What struck me in that moment is that the film owes more to the trivia game show at its center than just a convenient setting for this tale: its storytelling operates in much the same fashion as does a reality show, introducing a fairly simple structure and following it to the point there the structure is secondary to character, to personality, to humanity. Reality shows in general are only as good as their contestants: every game of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was entirely the same, and every season of Survivor is really the same basic game outside of a few different twists and turns.
I know that some will view this comparison as something almost sacreligious, but it should be seen as a compliment: what takes most reality shows 13 episodes to accomplish is done here in only two short hours, less a rollercoaster than a steady climb up a lift hill. You know what’s about to happen: it is inevitable that you are going to reach the top and rush down the hill to the inversion below. But when this is all happening in such an emotional, engrossing and highly compelling environment crafted by Danny Boyle and the entire team who worked on the film, it feels like something so much more: by the time you’re rushing down, you’re caught between enjoying the ride and looking back with nostalgia on the climb itself.
Say what you will about The Amazing Race or Survivor, two shows that have not changed their basic formula with over 28 seaosns between them, but these are two shows that can create tension. When teams are racing to the finish line, viewers who have been watching all along care about who gets there first, and often who doesn’t get there first. I was surprised during the recent Survivor finale how much I cared about the events, how much that one person’s emotionality would drive her to make decisions that fundamentally changed the game. I’m not suggesting that everyone is affected the same way by it, but even as the structure remains the same I feel as if the people keep me watching.
I feel like the way Slumdog Millionaire welcomed be into its world was quite similar: you start in awe of the technical prowess and look of the film, you begin to get intrigued as you piece together what is happening and how the film is going to be structured, and then as you begin to watch the structure never changes but your opinion of it (in my case at least) does. You start to care so much about these character, become so attached to the journey that Jamal has taken, that you’re as swept up in his story as is the nation watching on television within the film itself. Jamal’s reasons for being on the show and his success are far deeper and more complicated than the “kid from the slums who serves tea for telemarketers” that captures the attention of India, but as the film extends itself that dichotomy only draws us further into both his past and his present.
It’s a brilliant setup for a film of this nature, because it is both highly accessible and (when executed correctly) highly valuable as a tool for building character. Boyle is on target with his execution here, in a way that elevates this film considerably. It is a visually arresting film: there are moments which are pure visual eye candy, meant to please the eye and little else, but there are also scenes that are part of action, or drama, or comedy, that are as visually unique and effective in their own way. While I am a huge fan of the work A.R. Rahman has done with the film’s soundtrack, which I highly reccommend checking out, it is most effective when you have the visual and emotional recall the film evokes. The film could have emerged as purely formulaic in the hands of a lesser creative team, but they pulled off a film that has every chance of sweeping a large swath of technical awards come the Oscars.
It is also buoyed by a great cast: Dev Patel, who I know as Anwar on BBC America’s Skins (which, coincidentally, has its second season finale airing tomorrow night), is fantastic in a role I hope gets enough attention to earn as Oscar nod on top of his Screen Actors Guild nomination (his first major nod of the season). After seeing him play a character most often used for humour and rarely serious, it was so weird to see the other side of the coin here: it made me wish he had been given more dramatic material to work with in Skins’ second season, especially, and it was still great to see his comic side emerge in a couple of key moments here.
More important, though, was the generational performances for all three of the characters we follow through each time period. I won’t even try to list their names, but seeing the Screen Actors Guild nomination list was a real eye-opener to the range of talent the film employed. Speaking mainly in Hindi, the younger versions of these characters represent the real heart of this film, and while Patel’s performance picks up well on the thread I don’t know if the film could have worked if even one child performer had been lagging behind.
They all help to power this film forward: it’s conclusion may be inevitable, its structure, predictable, but there is so much power and emotion elsewhere that you don’t care about it by the end of the day. While in a highly condensed fashion, the film achieves the populist journey of discovery that marks the appeal of reality television to the masses, while giving one the feeling of journey and temporality in the style of a show like The Wire. It’s a film that knows what it is, and delivers on that in a thrilling fashion. If you have a chance to go see this film over the holiday season, I really can’t reccomend it enough – it’s certainly better than watching the new episode of “Super Password” on CBS if you’re looking to enjoy the thrill a good formula can provide.
Slumdog Millionaire is currently playing in limited release across North America, expanding this weekend to 580 theatres. To see if the film is playing in your area, check your local listings (I’ve always wanted to say that!)