A fairytale of Mumbai

Submitted by martin on 21 February, 2009 - 3:07 Author: Rosalind Robson

Review of "Slumdog Millionaire".

Although Slumdog Millionaire has generally received very good reviews it has also had its fair share of critics. Some of the criticism may be worth consideration. For instance: that it is an “outsider's” view of India, that the political movement against poverty in Indian city slums should have been shown, that the film’s child actors have not been adequately helped.

Other criticisms strike me as a bit silly or snobby — the film’s “magical realism” is not up to the genre’s high standards (Salman Rushdie aka Chief of the Magical Realism Police); the film steals scenes from Indian cinema (but when is a steal a steal and not an homage?)

That all said, what did I think of the film? The most curious thing for me (and it is a very curious film) is that I didn’t cry once. That’s an unusual event in my cinema-going life. Yet here is a film about street-living, train-hopping, orphans — what’s not to cry about?

The answer lies in Simon Beaufoy’s script (based on a book by Vikas Swarup) and the way it does not try to manipulate your emotions. The children’s lives and opinions are not there to be paraded as grim reminders of how “lucky” we in the First World are, but as interesting, and worthwhile in themselves. There is something to be said for a film script wearing its social conscience lightly and this Beaufoy managed to do very well, just as he did in the Full Monty.

Along the way we are told rather a lot about Mumbai, its rapid capitalist development. Along the way we do see both the good and the bad in Indian society: how social change is breaking down traditional values, how these are being replaced by consumerism. But the writer does all this by telling a cracking fairytale of a story.

Of course, the film’s plot, a good story or not, is wildly incredible and much has been made of that — a young homeless “chai wallah” (tea vendor, in this case a tea boy in a mobile phone company’s call centre) — gets on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Another byproduct is that the inclusion in a serious story of some laughs and lightness turns the characters into archetypes. This happens with the brothers at the centre of the story. Jamal is a good person, his brother Salim is not so good. Both represent choices in the human struggle to survive.

In my view there is room for this kind of story-telling in cinema. Between the dross of most cinema and unbearably grim documentary there is room for bright, imaginative, and humourful appreciations of other people's lives.

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