Slumdog Millionaire

Michael Wood reviews Slumdog Millionaire in the LRB:

The show [Who Wants to Be a Millionaire], 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.