‘Slumdog’ to riches: lighthearted fable fails to enlighten

Slumdog Millionaire’s box-office hit starts with the story of Jamal and Salim Malik, who are at home in the slums of Mumbai and joyful amidst the shanties and open sewage drains. But when their mother is killed before their eyes in an anti-Muslim pogrom, the two are forced to flee with a local girl, Latika, and scratch out a living on the bottom rung of Indian society by stealing, scavenging and duping fat, white tourists.
So begins their long, Dickensian struggle against poverty and exploitation, which eventually culminates roughly 10 years later in Jamal’s unlikely rise to the top of India’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? television show. The film wraps back into itself through a series of flashbacks, in which Jamal explains to police interrogators (the show’s slimy host has him arrested before the final round on suspicion of cheating) how he knew the answer to each question (“Who is pictured on the American one-hundred-dollar bill?” for example).

Critics and moviegoers have buried this film in critical acclaim. It won Golden Globe awards for best picture and director and has been nominated for an impressive 10 Oscars. Users of the popular Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) have on average given it 8.7 out of 10 stars, making it the 34th-highest rated movie of all time on the site.

Having now seen the film myself, it gives me no pleasure to report that Slumdog Millionaire is overrated. It’s enjoyable and uplifting, yes, but it’s ultimately one of those rare films that succeeds in being less than the sum of its parts – well-written, well-acted, well-produced and entertaining – but as unsatisfying as a cheap samosa.

The secret to Slumdog’s success boils down to the phenomenal likeability of Jamal, played by Dev Patel. Jamal has been ridiculed, betrayed, mistrusted and thwarted his entire life by policemen, tourists, gangsters and strangers who resent that he must so often steal and squat to survive. Poverty has turned his brother into an angry thug who has taken his beloved Latika from him; yet Jamal remains good and dreams not of money or status, but of being with Latika. Every time poverty takes her – first a gangster sells her off to be trained as an exotic dancer, then another takes her as his girlfriend – Jamal risks his life to find and recover her. Jamal’s unwavering love is an idealized alternative to commonplace, fickle love, but it’s an old and captivating idea. That the filmmakers succeeded in slipping it by my sarcastic and cynical defenses is a credit to their skill.

Yet while Slumdog Millionaire entertains, it scarcely enlightens. That’s okay, and maybe even ideal for the grim times we find ourselves in, but usually if a film is going to take me all the way to India to show me the other side of the globe, I’d like to come home with more than a few snapshots and a duty-free souvenir. There is no deep exploration of what poverty does to the human mind, or why, for example, the evildoers – one so dastardly that he blinds orphans for profit – act the way they do. Is it just the system? The film’s realism is ruthless, but only in depicting garbage and violence, not human beings. It is telling that ultimately our protagonists emerge from the slums well fed and with perfect teeth.

Slumdog doesn’t attempt to explore the joys and miseries of third-world poverty; it’s about the prison of poverty itself, and anybody who has read Great Expectations will recognize the heartbreaking and maddening cycle of hope and disappointment that awaits every upward-gazing slumdog. Adult Jamal’s facial expressions – slack-jawed and doe-eyed like Oliver Twist asking for more porridge – says it all. Getting out of poverty is an ugly and morally dicey process.

See Slumdog Millionaire so you can talk about it when it comes up in small conversation; see it if you’re sick of winter and yearn for a warm climate; see it if you need to reinvigorate your commitment to easing world poverty or your faith in love and destiny. Otherwise, let it pass. It’s a fad.