Slumdog Millionaire; and Q&A, by Vikas Swarup

Slumdog Millionaire won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2008 and seven others, Best Director (Danny Boyle), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score and Best Sound Editing. The other films up for Best Picture were The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk and The Reader, none of which I have seen. The Hugo and Nebula that year both went to WALL-E.

Slumdog Millionaire is 4th on one IMDB ranking but only 26th on the other, with The Dark Knight, WALL-E and Iron Man ahead of it on both lists. Along with Hellboy II: The Golden Army, those were the Hugo nominees and I saw them all. Weirdly enough I watched Mamma Mia! for the first time also last weekend; apart from the, the only other 2008 film I have seen is The Duchess, based on half a chapter of Amanda Foreman’s book.

For the second time in a row (after No Country for Old Men), I found no credited actors in common with other Oscar-winning films, Hugo or Nebula winners, or Doctor Who; perhaps a bit less surprising in this case, as almost all of the cast are from India and have made their careers there, and the kids in the flashback scenes have in general not become actors now that they have grown up.

It’s a film about a boy from the slums who wins the Indian equivalent of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? because his life experiences happen to mesh with the questions. As the film starts, he is arrested just before the final question is asked on suspicion of cheating, and explains his knowledge to a sceptical policeman, once they have finished torturing him, providing a series of flashbacks which tell the story of his life.

So, to start with the bits I didn’t like, as usual. I did not like the torture scenes. What can I say. I am squeamish. It’s weirdly out of tone with the rest of the film. They’re in the book as well, but there is a lot more violence in the original novel, so it’s less dissonant, and also you don’t have to watch it on paper.

It’s probably the least white film to have won an Oscar so far in my watching, but it’s very male. There is one female lead character, Latika, played as an adult by Freida Pinto. Again, the book is better on this – it memorably features a faded actress, a washed-up princess, a sex worker with a heart of gold, and crucially the framing narrative has the protagonist telling his story to a woman lawyer rather than a male police inspector.

It reduces Indian society to 1) the struggle of the poor and 2) the dynamic between the protagonist’s Muslim origins versus the forces of nationalism and/or the state, as specifically experienced in Mumbai. That’s an important story of course, but once again the book has a lot more diversity – it is set in New Delhi and Agra as well as Mumbai, and we encounter Indian Christianity, Sikhs, and quite a lot of stupid white people.

And I must say I twitched when the credits flashed up and there was only one Indian name (Loveleen Tandan) among a host of Brits in the senior production team. Somehow this mattered less for Gandhi, which was as much as anything about the relationship between India and the outside world, especially Britain. Slumdog Millionaire purports to be an Indian story about Indian people, but it isn’t.

Having said all that, I did generally enjoy the film. To be grim about it, the interrogation of poverty and social division is a crucial driver of the narrative, and is firm and not subtle. The story starts with the protagonist’s mother being killed in sectarian riots, and life in the slums is vividly depicted.

To be more positive, Dev Patel is great as Jamal, and all of the cast basically glow. I liked the comfortable bilingualism of the script (thanks to Loveleen Tandan apparently). I love quiz shows. I also love the interweaving of narratives where the past unexpectedly informs the present. It’s nice that a crucial plot point depends on The Three Musketeers, a novel which I like more than it really deserves. It looks fantastic and colourful in all the right ways. There is a happy ending. And the music is good.

I’m putting it just above the halfway point in my ranking of Oscar-winners, below It Happened One Night and above Gigi.

Next on my Oscar list is The Hurt Locker, which I have managed to maintain utter ignorance of since it came out (also in 2007, but it won a 2008 Oscar).

As noted above, I read the original book, Q&A, by Vikas Swarup. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

I don’t read the Maharashtra Times. In fact, I don’t read any newspaper. But I occasionally pilfer a copy from Mr Barve’s rubbish bin. It is useful for stoking the fire in the kitchen, and sometimes, when I have nothing else to do, I flip through its pages as a time pass before they are reduced to ash.

Some repetition below because I’ll be posting this section of the blog post independently to Goodreads and LibraryThing, in due course.

The central concept is the same as the film: a boy from the slums who wins a quiz show because his life experiences happen to mesh with the questions. The book is more violent. It has more sex and more female characters – as noted above, it has a faded actress, a washed-up princess, a sex worker with a heart of gold, and crucially the framing narrative has the protagonist telling his story to a woman lawyer rather than a male police inspector.

It’s also a broader look at India and its interactions with the outside world. The protagonist, Ram Mohammed Thomas, can pass as Muslim or Hindu, or indeed Christian; there’s a memorable chapter where he works for an Australian diplomat (the author is himself an Indian diplomat) and another where he makes a living taking tourists around the Taj Mahal. He also looks at the darker side of Bollywood, and of war heroes.

And at the very end there are a couple of pleasing plot twists, which I might have found rather contrived if the rest of the book had not put me in a generally good mood. You can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011)

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.