As most people know by now, Slumdog Millionaire follows the progress of a young “chai walla” or telephone help-desk tea-server through the process of breaking the bank on an Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
The movie opens to find him under torture in a local police station. The cops have been told that the accuracy of his answers amounts to proof of cheating. As the victim eventually explains, chance is responsible; each of the questions has evoked a personal experience which happens to have imprinted the correct answer: e.g. the inventor of the revolver, the holder of a cricket record.
Flashbacks structured by the sequence of questions then give us a vivid biographical portrait of the contestant, his elder brother, and the girl whom he has known from childhood, lost more than once, and never given up on finding again. The biography comprises the substance of the movie as it thunders from early childhood into real time and culminates in full resolution of all outstanding problems.
The first of these flashbacks treats us to the scene of cops chasing two small children from a prohibited area in which they have been playing, through the slum in which they live. Only the happy appearance of their mother saves them from official mayhem. Homey scenes of abysmal conditions follow.
Before long, we witness a Hindu pogrom during which the two brothers see the same mother clubbed to death. Soon after, they take a similarly orphaned girl under their protection and next appear on the local garbage dump, picking filth for a living, and residing in a tent. Here they are discovered by a smooth gangster who gives them Cokes and whisks them off to an encampment for street children. There, he feeds and houses dozens of little boys and girls, and prepares them for careers as street beggars or prostitutes. This preparation includes blinding and maiming, which we witness.
The two boys escape but the girl is captured trying. Thereafter, our protagonist, now eight or nine years old, pursues his lifelong quest: to find, rescue, and protect the lost girl, whom he loves. His unrelenting effort forms the engine of the movie and involves him with dangerous gangsters and repeated fraternal betrayals.
What I remember most vividly are the scenes of homicidal communal violence, universal indifference to the fate of helpless children, their blinding, maiming and daily exploitation (all presented as normal features of life in the big city) the routine use of torture on the merest suspicion by everyday police (this little station keep electrical equipment on hand for the purpose) and a general, straightforward, unabashed level of social snobbery so smarmy as to register in the pit of the stomach.
This is, however, no expose. The extensive scenes noted serve only as background for a facile and ultimately silly romance devolving on the conceit described. The action is camera driven. The tension relies on manufactured delay and forced uncertainty. The characters aspire neither to depth, texture, nor personality. The girl is typically beautiful notwithstanding the dreadful scar inflicted by her vedddy vedddy bad tormentors.
Most strikingly, the creative sensibility betrays no larger or principled interest in its depiction of abominations. The fiendish use of small children is mere local color.
Those with strong stomachs and a taste for formulaic melodrama in distant lands may buy it. Many have and no doubt will. I found it the creepiest motion picture I have seen in a long, long time. Creepier still is the popular practice of describing – and, I must conclude, experiencing – Slumdog Millionaire as a “feelgood” movie.