The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

Mumbai Masala

In Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle’s fast-paced, frenetic style suits the chaotic East-meets-West world of modern Mumbai.

Published on March 1, 2009
Slumdog Millionaire

Directed by Danny Boyle & Loveleen Tandan
120 minutes (Fox Searchlight)

Filmmakers seeking to capture life in the crucible of some volatile historical moment have sometimes succeeded by forcing the viewer to assume the perspective of a child. From within the intimate, laconic world of childhood—where fantasy and magic can infiltrate even the most harrowing of experiences—the mayhem of historical dislocations can be conveyed with immediacy and lyricism. Because life is new for children, the outer world still thrilling and unexplained to the inner one, they confront the aberrant with curiosity rather than fear, with play rather than calculation. Think of the World War II-era schoolyard of Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), of The Red Balloon (1956) or My Life as a Dog (1985), or the vagabond child among turn-of the-century itinerant laborers in Days of Heaven (1978). Children are how filmmakers translate prose into poetry.

To this group we can now add Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which conveys the dizzying whirl that is globalizing India through a modern-day fairy tale about its street children. Like other films in this subgenre, cruelty and mysterious beneficence circle each other in a surreal pas de deux. India’s rapid modernization has given rise to intriguing anachronisms, as the ancient past is still very much alive. Brahmin children recite the Rg Veda (which dates back to the Bronze Age) between iPod sessions, and engineers and office workers rub shoulders with Sufis and shamans. Such vivid contrasts are epitomized in Mumbai, the “Maximum City” where the film is set.

Jamal Malik, played by Dev Patel, looks out over the scyscrapers of Mumbai. [credit: Ishika Mohan/Fox Searchlight Pictures]

The film opens on street urchins’ improvised game of cricket on an airport runway that, when broken up by police, ignites a frenzied chase sequence, with the children careening through the labyrinthine alleyways of the Mumbai slum they call home. As they leap across tin roofs and dart nimbly through milling crowds, Boyle’s camera hurtles after them, forcing us to hit the ground running. The pace scarcely slackens after Jamal and Salim Malik lose their mother to a spasm of anti-Muslim mob violence; the brothers take to the streets, living by their wits as scavengers and petty thieves. They are soon joined by the beautiful Latika, who becomes the transcendent but elusive true love who draws Jamal forward through his turbulent young life—and who ultimately propels him to become a contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? As the children grow up, they move from a fetid landfill to underworld nightclubs and brothels, from the margin of tourist hubs to call centers and high rises. By the time they reach young adulthood, they’re speaking flawless English, and Bombay has become Mumbai.

The frenetic pace of Slumdog Millionaire parallels the rapid change in India itself, and in its young but fertile film history. Satyajit Ray, the godfather of Indian cinema, first presented post-independence India to the world with his “Apu Trilogy” (1955–60), which, inspired by the neo-realism of Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), followed the titular hero’s journey from a rural, impoverished Bengali village to bustling Calcutta. As in the neo-colonial period, in Ray’s India East and West exist in a kind of segregation of manners. England develops a taste for spice, and India imports cricket and Western schooling, but such reciprocity doesn’t undermine so much as redefine their separate and deep-seated cultural identities.

The next landmark achievement in Indian film was Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988), which shared Ray’s commitment to ground-level vérité but moved from his quiet, rambling reveries into a kinetic portrayal of urban street life. Indian-born and Western-educated, Nair paved the way for what are now referred to as “Hinglish” films: made by Indians for a global audience, capturing the ancient-modern mixture of Indian lives. “Hinglish” hits like Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) and Bend it Like Beckham (2002) show us how globalization has redefined individual human life in traditional cultures.

Slumdog Millionaire now extends this progression. Whereas the “Hinglish” films depict with poignant humor the disorienting collision between East and West, Boyle rejoices in the collapse of such categories. Just as many Indians now speak a vernacular that is half Hindi, half English, their film, literature, music and marketplace take freely from a wide variety of cultural sources, folded into one another in a freewheeling patchwork. Fittingly, in its screenplay (loosely adapted from Vikas Swarup’s 2005 novel Q&A;), soundtrack and visual style, the film is equal parts British and Indian. Even Boyle’s partnership with Indian casting director Loveleen Tandan evolved into a co-directorship, the result a unique portmanteau of British-inspired gritty realism and Bollywood fantasy.

Boyle is particularly well suited to capture the feverish, hyperactive contemporary Mumbai. Something of a chameleon, he tells stories with a kind of rambunctious energy. If one thing holds true throughout Boyle’s genre- and environment-hopping (he has explored a drug-infested Glasgow ghetto, an unmapped Thai beach, a dystopian future beset by zombies and even outer space), it’s that his films aren’t really about anything. While he may toss around a few middle-weight themes, he’s more interested in taking us for a ride than in conveying a message—and even then he’s more fellow passenger than pilot.

Boyle’s flexible, adventurous approach served him well while filming on location in Mumbai (a site whose difficulties drive even native filmmakers to the sanctuary of studio sets). During filming, permits would be intractably delayed or arrive after shooting had wrapped, and background buildings would be razed and replaced in short order. Crowds of thousands—most of them curious and benign, but some belligerent—would amass almost immediately after cameras began to roll. And then there were the negotiations with fractious Indian censorship authorities, which called for even more patience and good humor. In accepting such unpredictability, and in refusing to storyboard or press some social critique, Boyle captured what might have eluded a more officious director. He shows us an India rife with contradictions and vibrant extremes that undermine many a Western preconception about this enigmatic country.

It is illustrative of Boyle’s novel approach that he has interwoven an Indian narrative with a classic Western narrative template: the rags-to-riches tale perfected by Charles Dickens. Slumdog is Oliver Twist and Great Expectations transposed into a setting at once exotic and familiar. After all, Dickens’s Victorian London, transformed by rapid industrialization, had the same sense of unsteady but ineluctable momentum. Despite the visceral descriptions of smoggy urban squalor and the miseries of the working poor, the novels still convey an exhilarating surge toward a wholly new era. Slumdog shares the sprawling, epic quality of Dickens, the wild plot contrivances and reversals of fortune. Jamal is our orphan hero pursuing his innocent childhood love with pluck and stubborn virtue. His tribe of urchins is lured into a sinister beggars’ “orphanage” (whose villains ensnare them, appropriately enough, with that seductive U.S. emblem: an ice-cold Coca-Cola). After escaping an unspeakable fate there, Jamal’s wicked brother Salim becomes an enterprising Artful Dodger to a local slumlord’s Fagin. And beneath its stylized, pop-punk veneer, the film is bereft of hipsterish, ironic detachment; like Dickens, it is unabashedly earnest at heart.

Yet for all these parallels, the classic British story becomes something altogether different here as it dissolves into an Eastern notion of destiny. As Boyle saw it, the Indian belief that one’s life is guided by some interplay of fate and karma confers meaning and order on existence in the vast, teeming slums. Whereas in the Western classics, our pauper becomes a prince through his own wits, here Jamal really is a nobody, more a simpleton than a dashing young hero. (Perhaps this has something to do with Dev Patel’s blank performance; agape, doe-eyed and flap-eared, he blunders after his love with an almost exasperating single-mindedness.) Each Millionaire trivia question inexplicably relates to some unforgettable moment of his eventful life—he can’t not know the answers. And each correct answer brings him closer to the inevitable reunion with Latika (now an imprisoned concubine to Salim’s criminal boss.) He ultimately triumphs not on account of his own unique talents, but because “it was written.”

While the game-show setting is incidental, lifted from the Q&A; source material as a convenient plotting device, it befits the film’s broader interest in pastiche. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, after all, tests all subjects and forms of knowledge, from statistics to sports trivia to literature, whether acquired by experience or higher learning. While merely popular in the United States, the show is portrayed as a phenomenon in India. Crowds mob Jamal’s car as he is delivered to the studio for the grand finale. A woman raps on Jamal’s car window and demands alms from the overnight celebrity, and the desperation in her face says it all. The game show’s promise of instant fortune takes on a disturbing urgency in a country where entrenched poverty (compounded by the legacy of the caste system) afflicts so many. The fantasy that one can simply “walk into another life”, as Latika puts it, makes the show a national craze.

Littered with questions about the inventor of the revolver Samuel Colt, Benjamin Franklin’s face on the $100 bill, and finally that French adventure classic, The Three Musketeers, the game may act in the Indian imagination as some kind of symbolic conveyance to Western prosperity. But here again the film pivots, resisting such a facile interpretation. Behind the razzle-dazzle, the Indian Millionaire seems a sham. The game show floor opens onto dark, decrepit hallways and backrooms; the two-faced gameshow host has Jamal turned over to the local police, who treat Jamal to some “enhanced interrogation techniques” to force a confession that he has cheated his way to the final round. (The torture scene is oddly and effectively played for laughs, as though the feckless officers are trying to ape some cinematic version of an American CIA agent or Guantánamo interrogator.)

Even if the promised twenty million rupees are just an illusion, no matter; Jamal, after all, isn’t in it for the money. His lost love is one small soul among millions, and only in the contestant’s seat, with the entire country transfixed before their televisions, can he find her. The Dumas novel, a tattered copy of which Jamal encountered during a brief stint as a schoolboy, doesn’t signify his thwarted dream of Western education; it is neither understood nor remembered. Fittingly, the final question (“Along with Athos and Porthos, who was the third musketeer?”) is, with a shrug, left to chance.

These constantly shifting patterns in the relative primacy of East and West, ancient and modern, give Slumdog Millionaire a kaleidoscopic quality. Boyle, having never been to India before taking on the project, was free of preconceptions and pieties about this restless, unpredictable country, and so takes a mischievous pleasure in upending our own. He bristles, for instance, at the intonation by concerned interviewers of that loaded word, “exploitation” (in reference to his depiction of extreme poverty in the context of lighthearted popular entertainment). In the face of Western hand-wringing, Boyle shows us the resourcefulness of India’s poor, whose slums are self-sustaining, supported by cottage industries and an internal order of their own. He’s fond of quoting their own expression, “no one starves in India.” As he put it in a September 2008 interview at the Toronto Film Festival,

The Dharavi slum is known as the biggest slum in the world, with two million people living in it. It’s its own city, even if it hasn’t got a transport system other than your feet. What looks like dirt to begin with, there’s actually a pattern. . . . [They told me], ‘please don’t say we’re poor.’

One early scene involves makeshift outhouses where Jamal and Salim levy a fee to “customers” for their use. Though no stranger to gross-out imagery, Boyle isn’t merely playing the provocateur with this scatological digression. Rather, he’s illustrating, with characteristic roguishness, how commercial enterprise in Mumbai’s slums can spring up around activities as base and basic as defecation. The scene encapsulates the jarring visual extremes Boyle finds so captivating: It opens in a wide shot of a yawning, sun-dappled valley flecked with rustic wooden docks—which, we soon see, jut out over small mountains of excrement.

Indeed, Boyle refuses to allow the viewer to become bewitched by India. If there persists some idealized vision among American Buddhists, yoga practitioners and New Agers about some pristine, mystical India that is in danger of being trammeled by globalization, Boyle topples it. He isn’t worried about some supposed insidious encroachment of Western culture into the ancient East; he’s too fascinated by the new India to mourn the passing of the old. In an absurd episode at the Taj Mahal, he pokes fun at the spectacle of mass “postcard and souvenir” tourism for those searching for spiritual enlightenment. (When policemen capture and beat Jamal for running petty scams on the tourists, one American, nudged by his wife, offers him money, saying, “Here’s a bit of the real America, son.”)

As for the call center—that locus of the U.S. outsourcing controversy and India’s rise in the global economy—here, too, Boyle injects wry humor. As Jamal traverses the rows of cubicles delivering cups of chai, we see trainees learning local English dialects, geography and cultural cues to reassure wary British customers. Filling in for an absentee phone rep, Jamal improvises, telling a suspicious caller that he is “just down the road from your house, at Loch…Big Ben…on Sean Connery road.” Again, we see the nonchalant, sponge-like absorption and imitation of all things Western, even as the West itself remains essentially irrelevant.

Throughout Slumdog, Boyle gives us the India we think we know, only to draw back the curtain to reveal something bizarre or askew—and the result is entertaining if emotionally empty. The often gruesome, but never gloomy, portrait of the slums standing underneath the feet of the new Indian juggernaut dissolves, finally, into a joyful Bollywood dance number. But for all its irresistible ebullience, Slumdog leaves a lingering sense that there persists in India an indifference to the indignities of life mired in crime and poverty, particularly in a place where ascendant financial power and nuclear muscle coexist with millions lacking electricity and flush toilets. The film hinges upon destiny—that Jamal and Latika are fated for one another. (That the film went from being orphaned by its own studio to awards-season glory adds appeal to this reading.) But Jamal’s indefatigable pursuit of Latika, despite the calamities it causes and the several admonishments to forget her he hears along the way, leaves us with a different, more lasting impression: In a chaotic city of more than 13 million, Jamal’s insistence on the inviolable quality and importance of a single human life resonates as a familiar, even quintessentially American, ideal.

Noelle Daly is assistant editor of The American Interest.