By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Slumdog Millionaire” opens with our hero, Jamal (Dev Patel), getting smoke blown into his face by a police interrogator. Then he gets his head slammed into a bucket of water, and electrical shock is applied to his feet. English director Danny Boyle always makes Jamal’s fast grin, quick mind and mischievous pranks fun to follow. However, he never reconciles this fun with the film’s often-devastating spin throughout India.
Jamal’s torture stems from him winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” The authorities can’t believe a “slumdog” from the destitute streets of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) could answer all those complicated questions.
The viewer is thrown four conflicting answers to this dilemma: A) He cheated. B) He’s lucky. C) He’s a genius. D) It is written in the script so it has to happen.
The film switches between Jamal in custody, Jamal on “Millionaire,” and Jamal growing up with his older brother Salim. The misbehaving boys scamper through the streets making faces at the policemen who chase them. They know how to escape from the cops but they can’t elude Mom and the exasperated smacks she delivers.
Always desperate for a few rupees, the boys take charge of some primitive outhouses. When a helicopter, containing one of India’s biggest Bollywood movie stars, comes in for a landing, Salim maliciously locks Jamal inside. Jamal must choose between diving down the outhouse’s hole or missing out on his idol. His feet-first solution brought a chorus of disgusted groans and guilty laughter from the preview audience.
Jamal gets his “Millionaire” questions from the show’s preening host, Prem (Anil Kapoor). In the film’s vision of India, every adult seems happy in his or her power and corruption. Even Salim goes along with anything to feed his belly and his ego. Only Jamal seems incorruptible. But for how long?
Soon enough, a girl named Latika joins the boys. Both boys harbor feelings for her, although Salim’s run a bit coarser. Salim also believes that, as the older brother, what he says goes. The film flashes back repeatedly to the boys’ first encounter with Latika and the first time they lose her.
The audience figures out quickly that for every correct answer Jamal gives on the show, he has lost a huge piece of his life. As the audience learns what he holds in his right hand, we also learn about his childhood. During a Hindu attack on a public bath, his mother died. In another flashback, we learn that a boy is blinded in order to become a successful street beggar.
When Jamal meets the blind boy on the street, he gives the boy an American hundred-dollar bill.
Yes, parts of “Slumdog Millionaire” bring chuckles. However, Boyle makes a serious mistake in showing us too much of the pain behind every bit of humor. I couldn’t stop thinking about all the boys and girls without happy endings written for them, the ones who never get asked anything and never get credit for having anything worth knowing. ♦
“Slumdog Millionaire” opens Friday, Nov. 21, at Seattle’s Harvard Exit Theatre, 807 East Roy Street. Call 206-781-5755 for prices and showtimes.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.