I must have read the only bad review of Slumdog Millionaire. It convinced me not to go. I was dead set. I held out against hundreds of subsequent five star reviews, eight Oscars, and the kind of word of mouth money can’t buy. Six months after its release, I was browsing my favourite video shop, and found it in the recommended section. I cracked under the weight.
The reviews crowded in my head as I watched. Every scene was filtered through my jumble of contradictory expectations. I have never watched a film with such awareness of my judgment of it. I was willing to believe that the film was terrible and that the first reviewer was a lone voice of sanity. But I was more eager to enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the last Danny Boyle film I saw, Trainspotting.
The movie is about a kid, Jamal who wins Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He is from the slums of Mumbai, and works in a call center. The central conceit is that his knowledge of the answers comes directly from his life in the slums, his peripheral involvement in Mumbai’s crime circles, and his work in the call centre. He has a complicated relationship with his brother, and is trying to track down another orphan girl from the slums, Latika.
I tried to like it. I really did. But the effort just made me uncomfortable. I didn’t hate it. I was just left cold. I wondered what motivated all those positive reviews. One source suggested it was because the film was ‘worthy’. All the exotic settings and poverty made people feel they couldn’t say they thought it was crap.
I disagree. But I’ve got two theories on why people liked it…
One: The novelty in the setting of this film provided enough excitement for a lot of people to really love it.
The second theory: the tension comes from that ancient storytelling tradition we call ‘the gameshow.’ Zillions of people really like Who Wants to be a Millionaire. They like it even more if they know a little bit about the background of the winner, and feel he’s a worthy winner. This film spends nearly two hours delivering that. That’s more time than Eddie McGuire gets.
I like novelty. I like gameshows. The acting was good! Why the flip didn’t I like this film?
The big problem for me was: it jumps around too much. Good story telling focuses you on the part you’re supposed to care about.
There’s three plot lines – the game show itself, a police interrogation during which our hero Jamal is tortured to determine whether he is cheating, and the lives of Jamal, his brother and the girl, Latika, from their early childhood to nascent adulthood.
These lives are squeezed to provide the material that allows the ‘slumdog’ to know the answers, and also to provide the emotional fuel for the movie. It’s a technical point, but the film spends a lot of time on plots and subplots that fizz and fail. There’s not enough effort devoted to make us believe in the romance between Jamal and Latika, which is the key narrative arc.
And if you’re not impressed by the storyline then the ‘nods to classic cinema’ are yawn-inducing cliches. I felt like it wasted my time. Can I blame that first review?
If you want a film about a poor boy made good, get Billy Elliot. If you want a good Mumbai slum story, read A Fine Balance. If you want drama, tune into Who Wants to be a Millionaire.