Question... Why did Slumdog Millionaire do so well at this year’s Oscars?
A) It’s the film Danny Boyle has been leading up to since Shallow Grave and Trainspotting clocked him as the British director most likely to break America.
Fifteen years of honing that flailing, restless – much copied – style through missteps (Alien Love Triangle, A Life Less Ordinary), oversteps (The Beach, Millions) and genrehopping giant steps (28 Days Later, Sunshine)... It was all for this, a loveable love story that Boyle – with his firecracker energy and huggable dynamism – was born to tell.
Slumdog is a Hollywood film in Bollywood trousers, and to make it, Boyle had to turn the setting into the star. He steeped himself in the clamour and contradictions of India, casting mostly local actors, shooting on the fly in teeming shanty-towns.(“Most films are about control,” he says in the Making Of. “But India can’t be controlled. You have to just go with it.”)
The challenge of location-shooting in Mumbai would have sent lesser directors scurrying back to their air-conditioned hotel rooms, howling for Imodium. Boyle used the challenges to supercharge his shoot, feeding on the frustrations, twisting studio doubts into siege mentality, breeding Slumdog as the underdog that everyone was rooting for. “Mumbai is like the sea,” gushes Boyle. “It’s always the same and yet it changes every moment. You can turn up to do a location scout one day, and the next day someone’s built a wall in the spot you thought was perfect! You have to just go with it...”
B) It’s a reflection of the times.
Sure, the one about the rags-to-riches kid who gets the girl and warms our hearts might seem slight and trite. But Boyle deftly moulds a mass of current issues around his romcom kernel.
While we’re following the fable of ex-street kid Jamal’s (Dev Patel) progress on the Indian Who Wants To Be A Millionaire – a show he’s weaselled onto for love not money – Boyle stirs in several doses of reality... In Jamal’s brutalisation as a suspected cheat, he nudges about the morality of torture.
From a horrific sequence where Jamal’s mother is set upon by sectarian thugs, Boyle prods about racism and cultural intolerance. In a barely watchable moment of casual violence, Boyle boldly unveils one of India’s most shameful secrets: the plight of dirt-poor street kids being blinded to attract sympathy and earn more money for their pimplike keepers. And in the sequence where Jamal and estranged brother Salim survey the steaming metropolis from an unfinished high-rise, their unease about the urbanisation of India taps into wider fears of globalisation and homogenisation (a theme Boyle visited in The Beach).
So while the overall tone could be interpreted as a little schizo, Boyle’s intentions are pure: he doesn’t want to tell a story set in India without reaching for the full story.
C) It transcends the times. In a climate of conspicuous non-consumerism, a get-rich-quick fantasy is the ultimate escape.
Slumdog is a feel-good movie for a feel-bad age; a bolstering voice in a crowd of doomsayers. And that doesn’t mean it’s ‘poverty porn’ – an easy outlet for getting perspective on middle-class mortgage worries by snooping on a world where kids sleep rough and sell plastic bottles to survive.
Boyle’s spectacular, panoramic canvases of multicoloured shack-roofs, ugly-beautiful wastegrounds and sun-fried pipelines aren’t patronising. They’re a celebration of the unfiltered, organic vibrancy of India; a wide-eyed Westerner’s view of a place where life just happens – messy, perilous and selfregulating, but so very real and visceral. A joyful wallow in the wily adaptability of humanity in its rawest form.
D) The competition was no competition.
Frost/Nixon, The Reader, Milk, Benjamin Button… In such moody, medicinal company, Slumdog was a gulp of zingy spring water. Fuelled by AR Rahman’s triumphant east/west musical mash-ups and crisp, fresh performances from Freida Pinto and Dev Patel, it felt young and alive while the other Best Picture nominees were stern and respectable. “Dev brings a great sense of vulnerability,” says writer Simon Beaufoy. “He’s just on the cusp of being a man.” And Pinto’s double-take beauty at least makes the premise vaguely plausible (one man obsessively trying to find the love of his life in a city of 14 million people).
Answer... OK, trick question. All of the above. This is vivid, vivacious filmmaking from a director who deserves every ounce of the acclaim it’s landed him.
The point (love finds a way) is hardly revolutionary, but Slumdog is an achievement of intent over content. Boyle has summoned the audacity to stride across a cultural divide, turbo-charging his wagging tale with the crackle and hum of time and place; transforming his anxiety about shooting in unfamiliar, unpredictable territory into a breathless tribute to the seething propulsion of the host country.
And consider this: Boyle’s two best films (this and Trainspotting) both have scenes featuring horrible toilets and a character covered in shit. Someone give this man a Disney film.