Slumdog Millionaire, Dir. Danny Boyle, Now Playing
Slumdog Millionaire gave me the perfect experience of what Roland Barthes calls “cinematographic hypnosis.” The images lured, captured, and captivated me. In a crisp two hours I shared the characters’ thrills and tears with held breath, followed the gorgeous color, buoyant music, and breathtaking motion without my eyes leaving the screen. Not until the very end did I realize that I had been watching a life story out of the most devastating inferno and a modern city’s rise from the most squalid debris, both condensed to a 15-minute TV game show with the sole purpose of creating a new millionaire.
The film’s ability to create magic out of such unappealing materials came to me as a refreshing surprise; my full engagement in an intimate portrayal of, as many say, today’s Dickensian London was also unexpected. I am often cautious about the audience’s passion for an authentic picture of a strange place. Almost every time coming out a Chinese/Korean/Vietnamese/Hong Kong/Taiwanese film, I would encounter curious fellow moviegoers asking the same eager question: does this film represent authentic China/Korea/Vietnam? The question comes as a flattery about my authentic Asian look, but does not always lead to the most interesting or productive discussion about the film or the country. More often than not, I find deliberate national allegories on the screen hard to engage (for example, the last one I saw was Wonderful Town from Thailand), especially when they call for some condescending distance. It seems as if, in our daily experience of eating Thai food, wearing made-in-China clothes, and planning trips to the Caribbean, we become increasingly incapable of apprehending what used to be historic antagonisms—exploitation, inequality, class struggle—unless from a secure distance and through an estranging lens.
Slumdog Millionaire does not ask for any such judging distance, but, to quote Barthes again, “glues” the audience to the representation. The story is told through torrents of vivid images, with the immediacy only images can achieve. As the young hero explains how he learns from experience the answers to million-rupee questions, we follow him and his buddies winding through sun-soaked ghetto lanes, sprinting across rugged but colorful roofs, begging in bustling, jam-packed streets, or searching for each other in a noisy, overcrowded, and exuberant train station. Quick montages leave no time for reflection, but invite our unconditional identification with what’s set before our eyes. The pace and feel reflect the filmmakers’ impression of catching a crazily vigorous Mumbai, and Mr. Boyle talked about abandoning “control freakery” and enduring “a bit of naïvete.” The camera, always on the run, tries to capture the swift motion of the mostly native and non-professional cast and the raw energy of the place. Even the chaos appears charming.
Sometimes the images brim over and supplement the story in unexpected ways. When two brothers search a dimly-lit red light district for a long-lost sweetheart, we feel hundreds, maybe thousands of curious and suspicious eyes on their backs. Given the camera’s insatiable appetite for local colors, however, nothing is penetrated beyond a gleeful surface. Devastating poverty, brutal violence, and stunning moral horror are quickly glossed over, as we wait impatiently for the next visual thrill. When the film pauses at an unusually quiet moment as the reunited brothers sitting on top of an unfinished skyscraper right above what used to be “their” slum, I share their sense of loss over a landscape they are born into and manifest but, like the filmmakers behind them, are unable to control.
Behind the flamboyant images, the film does exhibit a masterful control over the tension-bursting narrative. Cut seamlessly between the hero’s insignificant but opportunistic past and his glamorous but equally opportunistic present, the story satisfies both our adventurous curiosity and escapist fantasy. For a Western audience, an oriental orphan’s magical journey out of one inferno after another offers as much exhilarating escape as his prospect of becoming a millionaire. And our curiosity is intensified when a happy-ever-after ending is assured beforehand. (The 1940 British film The Thief of Bagdad displays the same archetypal myth.) When, finding themselves at Taj Mahal, the two brothers serve as self-appointed tour guides for an unsuspecting American couple, we laugh over the funny misinformation they give and appreciate the “real” India they manage to show, including some more flamboyant colors of a poor area, without any notice that the irony may be on us. Similarly, when the mounting tension in the plot shifts from survival, social mobility, and the search for love to finding the right answers to the million-rupee questions, everything comes so naturally it escapes our notice. For the first time the question has no “object correlative” in the hero’s experience but only brings the memory of a lover’s disappearance. Nevertheless, a cunning TV host, a prolonged pause, and a frame with the hero’s face up-side-down in meditation form a sense of suspense as strong as any of the real-life adventures we have just seen. As we are finally moving toward the destination of all the adventures—the creation of a millionaire, the crazy Mumbai streets disappear from our horizon. But that does not matter.
In his acclaimed earlier works, Mr. Boyle often manages to display the humanity of social outcasts, like junkies in Trainspotting (1996), murderers in Shallow Grave (1994), or zombies in 28 Days Later (2002). This deliberately life-affirming tale, however, has to rely on the archetypes of hero and villain. Like Oscar Wilde’s ever young and beautiful Dorian Gray, the hero keeps his integrity, optimism and resourcefulness while witnessing his peers descending into moral downfall or atrocious calamity. The most memorable story behind the story is that of his brother, who develops an interest in revolvers (which later appear in a million-rupee question), money, women, and a future of being at the “center of the world.” The night after the brothers’ reunion, we see through the hero’s point of view his brother praying on his knees for the Lord to redeem his sins. This cuts to the brother wandering lonely along the lonelier streets. Fantasy and reality become indistinguishable, and we don’t know which belongs to whom. As the hero sits under the spotlight with a full smile, ready for the last question worthy of 20 million rupees, his brother calmly retreats into a small bathroom, fills the bathtub with colorful banknotes, buries himself in them, and aims his revolver at the door.
As the film moves towards its triumphant end, we are temporarily relieved from the tension under the spotlight as we revisit the jammed, exuberant, charming-even-in-chaos Mumbai streets, this time with a whole nation watching and hanging their fates on the hero’s crucial last answer. I feel some irresistible sense of innocence lost. I am not watching a coming-of-age-at-all-cost story loaded with heartfelt laughter and tears, but a commercialized show calculated to win the gaze of millions. On second thought, I find the whole idea of the show a perfect metaphor. On the one hand, nothing works better to catch the frenzy of a country fast-forwarding to the center of the global stage, where everything turns to breakneck competition often for the sake of an illusion. On the other, maybe apart from Thai food and made-in-China clothes, the gleeful surface of images through a commercialized lens gives us our only glimpse of the outside world.
LU CHEN is a contributor to the Rail.