The Good and the Gooey

There's much to like about 'Slumdog Millionaire,' but the corny, semi-sexist romance plot disappoints

Even though it's set in India and stars mostly Indian actors, Slumdog Millionaire starts out with two scenes that reflect America's favorite pastimes: acquiring undeserved wealth and torturing prisoners.

On the nightly broadcast of the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an uneducated orphan from the streets of Mumbai, is answering all of the questions correctly and is well on his way to 20 million rupees. He's suspected of cheating, and the local police engage in some Rumsfeldian practices to force him to confess. In spite of the application of enhanced interrogation techniques, Jamal insists that he did not cheat, and begins to tell the police the story of how, in the course of his life, he coincidentally came across the answers to all of the questions.

It's an interesting framing device, with each answer presenting a gateway to an incident that made Jamal the man he is. His tale starts when he's a boy of perhaps 7 (played at this stage by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar), and the police try to kill him, because, at least according to Slumdog Millionaire, India is a horrible, horrible place. For example, though only a grade-schooler, Jamal nonetheless has the manly responsibility of working as a toilet attendant. Trapped inside the feculent little chamber by his older brother, he must dive into a hole full of poop and then run, coated in feces, across a dirty field to get the autograph of a Bollywood superstar.

Luckily, that's the only poop-joke sequence in the film (though actually covering someone from head-to-toe with poop is equivalent to 13 lesser poop jokes on the standard Farrelly scale). Strangely, the poop dive is not the worst thing that happens in Jamal's life, as shortly thereafter, his mother is killed by Hindu fundamentalists who were on a religious mission to prove that they could be every bit as stupid and violent as Muslim, Christian and Jewish fundamentalists.

Cutting back and forth--between scenes in the police-interrogation room and the slums, garbage dumps and fraudulent orphanages where Jamal spent his youth--Slumdog Millionaire uses MTV-style fast edits and Bollywood-inspired music (by A.R. Rahman and M.I.A.) to create a frenetic and violent look at the outlaw life in modern Maharashtra and Utter Pradesh.

The story revolves around Jamal's relationship with his brother Salim and his friend Latika (played as adult by Freida Pinto). Jamal and Latika meet up as fellow orphans, and are separated shortly thereafter. She then becomes the motivating factor in his life as he does everything he can to find her and free her from the gangsters who treat her as chattel.

Unfortunately, this romance is the weakest part of the film. While director Danny Boyle does a great job with his chase sequences and comic moments, he has no idea how to create a convincing romantic connection. You can postulate all sorts of reasons why Jamal remains obsessed with Latika for many years, even though he spent only a few months with her when he was not even 10 years old, but none of them are good enough to make a reunion between them in any way rewarding. While Jamal fights to be with her, and is developed as a complex individual with strong ethical motivations challenged by his horrifying life, Latika is basically just pretty--really pretty, but still, prettiness is not generally considered a personality trait.

I guess I shouldn't expect female characters to have character, and maybe it's too much to want movies not to be larded with stupid and sentimentally motivated sexism. But in so many other ways, Slumdog Millionaire is an intelligent, sensitive and well-made film, so this lapse bothered me. The action is neatly paced, with the framing sequence causing the story to unfold like a mystery. The cinematography is so gorgeously varied that I was surprised there was only one director of photography listed in the credits (Anthony Dod Mantle, who shot Manderlay, 28 Days Later and Festen). While the silly series of coincidences that allows Jamal to answer all the questions stretches credulity, it can at least be seen as coherent with the rags-to-riches genre.

But the reliance on a blank, characterless female in distress makes the ending, a gooey montage followed by a gauzy scene on a railway platform, somewhat unbearable. So even though I understand that word has come down from the Film Critic's Politburo that we're all supposed to praise Slumdog Millionaire, and I enjoyed much of it, I nonetheless found it to be a bit of a letdown.