“Bombay had become Mumbai”: this line succinctly encapsulates the sententious message underpinning Danny Boyle’s film – a powerful transition of ideology from West to East. Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is an examination and further, a condemnation of Western capitalism and its pervasive influence upon burgeoning and adolescent economies of the former British Empire. Boyle cutely employs the narrative framing device of game show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ as the fulcrum of the protagonists story; a western capitalist product which offers escapism to the masses. Crucially this offer of freedom takes on new significance for the marginalised in Mumbai where escape is essential for survival. The boundaries are erected before the film’s protagonist Jamal and are made clear as he is informed by the game show host that he has reached his limits and must retreat to his place within societies hierarchical structure, instead he defies this rebuke and continues is transgression of such boundaries even after his arrest. Boyle’s message is that it is dangerous to simply transfer cultural ideologies and conventions with no consideration of their consequences for monetary motivations alone. ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’ is a ‘fun’ game show in the U.K that can enrich lives but in Mumbai it can transform them completely and the potential of the ‘slumdog’ to climb the cultural ladder is dangerous and problematic for the ruling classes.
Fittingly, the final and crucial question is one of cricket- a sport seemingly so inextricably tied to Indian culture that the answer surely could not evade Jamal. An Indian and Cricket? Peas in a pod surely. Actually no. Jamal’s life has not afforded him the pleasure of following cricket- a sport introduced to India during the British Empire’s rule no less. Jamal’s subversion of stereotypical racial pre-suppositions offers sagacious yet potent reprimand to the watching Western audience and credit must go to Boyle here, his post-colonialist memorandum is completed.
Boyle’s directorial style effectively constructs Jamal’s narrative and endears pathos from the viewer through the employment of analepsis and prolepsis – informing us that the past can and indeed must be learnt from. The failing however, lies in Boyle’s reluctance to follow-through with the necessary conviction in order to illustrate how alternate ideology within capitalist society can flourish. Boyle takes the easy route in order to garner as much sympathy for his protagonists at the expense of representing reality and exposing the reading viewer to contrasting resolutions.
Slumdog Millionaire is in many respects reminiscent of the 2003 Brazilian film City of God which depicts the slums of Rio de Janeiro during the 1960s through to the 80s, operating upon the same axiomatic structure of class divide within a city perimeter. Director Fernando Meirelles however does not succumb to the same pit-fall as Danny Boyle by generating a much more fragile tapestry of flawed, fallible and damaged individuals. There are no ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ as are so evident in Boyle’s somewhat recumbent plateau of characterisations, instead the audience is left to interpret and evaluate the actions and motivations of each personality before them. In this respect Boyle’s film falls into the increasing post-modern trap of generating emotion pay-off at the expense of subtlety.
Boyle’s stylistic choices pertaining to discursive construction endorses conformity ultimately by framing Jamal’s victory in juxtaposition against his brother Salim’s self-inflicted destruction – his challenge to the criminal underworld. Boyle opts for the ironically ‘Hollywood’ denouement in a film which has been championed for its distance from Hollywood influence.
Ultimately, despite the grandiose ambitions of the piece, we are left with little more than a rewoven ‘Cinderella’ story. Jamal gets the money and the girl and his flawed brother opts to kill himself for his crimes. Boyle inadvertently endorses capitalism by permitting Jamal such financial success. Perhaps an alternative ending would have seen him fail on ‘Who wants to be a millionaire?’ but still reunite with Latika (retaining the core emotional thread of the plot) whilst Salim merely fades from the narrative after redeeming himself by facilitating Latika’s escape- the viewer left with assumptions alone as to his fate. His grandiose and altruistic death merely provides voyeurism and was unnecessary. Boyle should have taken more care in engineering his final act so as to nurture the social sub-text on offer. Yes criminals are bad and in an ideal world they should be punished duly, but as Boyle’s wonderfully vibrant and visually loquacious film evidences up to its final stages, life is not perfect, wholesome and clean and one cannot help but think that the ending could have re-enforced this also at the expense of the feel-good finish so common in narrative cinema.
Rating: two-and-a-half Olympic Games opening ceremonies