Right now I’m in India. Hence the inclination to rewatch Slumdog Millionaire. Visiting the country has certainly given me a different perspective on the film and actually watching it while I am here has proved to be quite a profound experience.
I remember going to see the New York set Michael J. Fox movie The Concierge in Times Square back when I was an easily excitable twenty year old and thinking it was so cool to be watching a Manhattan movie in Manhattan. (It would have been cooler if it had been a different movie.) Seeing Slumdog Millionaire here though has not filled me with the same sense of joy. That isn’t to say that Slumdog Millionaire has lost any of its power as a heart swelling triumph of love and destiny, it’s just that the narrative journey it takes to get there now has greater poignancy.
I have always recognised the trauma in protagonist Jamal’s early life but it inevitably seems much more real when you are surrounded by people in similar situations. This trip has not taken me to Mumbai where the film is chiefly set but I have seen plenty of poor people on the streets of Delhi, Jaipur and Kolkata. It is ten years since the film came out and assuming it was contemporary, twenty plus years after the time depicted in the scenes showing Jamal and his brother Salim struggling to survive any way they could. They beg, sell cheap souvenirs, try to flog balloons to families travelling with children and they take photos of tourists before pressurising them to buy them which are all things I have experienced in the last two weeks here in Northern India. I’ve not been suckered by lies about culture and history, as a series of gullible Americans are in the film when Jamal poses as a tour guide, but I’ve had plenty of Tuk Tuk drivers try to convince me that the place I want to go is 2km away when it is actually round the corner. At one point I was emphatically told that my desired destination was not actually the place I was standing in front of at all and that I should let them take me for a ride in more ways than one. I have politely declined all of these people, many of them children, which isn’t ever easy of course but I’d not really stopped to appreciate their situations. Not until I saw the kid I was sympathising with on screen doing a lot of the same things. It changed the way I watched the film and it changed the way I walk around these streets.
While this is a big part of the film though it is only a small part of India and is has been good to see other aspects of life in this country reflected in Danny Boyle’s movie. There was some controversy over the way India was depicted when the movie was released and I am certainly in no position to contradict this. Still, while lots has undoubtedly been exaggerated, within the story you see the importance of family, the commitment to tradition, the delight in pop culture and the national pride all of which I have seen evidence of in the conversations I’ve had with the people I’ve met here.
It is good to recognise the India I have experienced in Slumdog Millionaire because my worry was that the British director and the British writer Simon Beaufoy had not given the film authenticity. My fear was that what was presented here was an India heavily influenced by British sensibilities and God knows I’ve seen a lot of that here too, even seventy years after independence. Dev Patel, who plays the adult Jamal was born in Harrow to Kenyan parents of Indian descent which presumably gives him limited experience to bring to the part. The rest of the cast though is rounded out by Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan who come from Mumbai, Delhi and Jaipur respectively and of course the original book is written by Vikas Swarup who was born in Allahabad and currently serves as Indian High Commissioner to Canada. Also, let’s not forget that much of what is on screen can be credited to second unit director Loveleen Tandan, herself from Delhi, who is often forgotten as one of the key voices behind this film.
The other thing that came to me seeing Slumdog Millionaire for the first time in almost a decade is how good it is. I knew it was a great film but I’d forgotten why. The performances are all excellent including those of child actors Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Rubina Ali, but I’d remembered this. It’s the deftness of the story telling that hadn’t stayed with me.
Essentially this is a love story but somehow you don’t realise this while you are watching it. The plot is more about the couple being apart than it is them being together and the realism of the film neatly distracts from how unrealistically romantic it actually is. The ending is also remarkably uplifting even though Jamal and Latika’s story is married to the tragedy of Salim’s. Hanging the flashback narrative around the police investigation into how Jamal, a poorly educated teenage tea boy, is able to answer each question on his way to potentially winning big on the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire TV show is brilliant too. This is clearly Swarup’s concept but Danny Boyle and his editor Chris Dickens handle it masterfully. (Both men won Oscars.) In the end the simultaneously busy and frantic but unhurried and sangfroid nature of the film seems to match the incredible country I am currently visiting perfectly.