During a lecture on screenwriting given at Whitworth University, Hollywood writer-director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Blaze) said that the biggest change in the movie business since he became active in the 1980s is the purchasing of the major studios by large, multi-national corporations. Small, distinctively American stories of the kind Shelton consistently makes are much more difficult to produce in this context, which demands high returns from overseas markets. Cinema always has been a transnational medium, and it was particularly mobile in the pioneering days of silent films when language barriers could be easily crossed with a change of intertitles. But the sleeper hit Slumdog Millionaire signals a kind of self-conscious transnationalism that may inform the aesthetic and marketing choices of the major studios for years to come.
Slumdog Millionaire is an unlikely sort of hybrid—an Irish director, an Indian co-director, and cast including London-born actors like Dev Patel, who had never been to India before filming, distribution by Hollywood-based Fox Searchlight studios, funding by British and American companies, and a soundtrack that includes hip-hop songs by the Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A. As Yogi Berra once said: “Only in America.”
The film’s director, Danny Boyle, cut his teeth as a television director on shows like the Inspector Morse mystery series, before moving to feature films with the thriller Shallow Grave (1995) starring a young Ewan McGregor. The director and star would go on to work together on two more films in a row, the much heralded Trainspotting (1996)—one of the most vibrant films of the 1990s—and the much less heralded A Life Less Ordinary (1997), which attempted to ignite chemistry between McGregor and Cameron Diaz via a squad of heavenly angel matchmakers.
The sappy contrivance that critics derided in A Life Less Ordinary has become a central component of Boyle’s oeuvre. Few directors seem as capable as Boyle of jumping between flashy, gritty projects (like the excellent blood-fest 28 Days Later ) into cheery, sincere ones (like the earnestly Christian, family-oriented film Millions ). Prior to Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle made Sunshine (2007), a futuristic fantasy about a crew of astronauts attempting to reignite the dying sun. The film was strongest in its slower, meditative beginning which borrowed heavily from Andrei Tarkovsky, and, in my judgment, fumbled in the third act which played like a contrived Aliens redux or the worst of Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man. The rapid shifts between the sweet (though not quite saccharine) and the brutal (though not quite depraved) occurs not just between Boyle’s films but within them.
Slumdog Millionaire achieves a similar feel to Boyle’s other films by mixing equal parts sweetness and brutality in a signature visual style. The flashy editing, whip-pan camera movement, and montages set to pulse-pounding tunes are familiar techniques from Trainspotting, and the bright color palette recalls Millions and The Beach (2000). Boyle’s narrative draws upon the conventions of popular Hindi cinema—colloquially known as Bollywood—but these conventions were already at play in his earlier films.
The film’s Oscars and other prestigious awards might tempt us to see Slumdog Millionaire as belonging to a tradition of more serious Indian cinema, but the parallels with Bollywood style are readily apparent. In critical evaluations, a divide seems to exist between India’s high culture productions, whose leading figure is Satyajit Ray (The Apu Trilogy [1955–1959], The Home and the World ), and the more popular forms that account for the majority of movie-making in India. The hallmarks of Bollywood movies are melodramatic plotlines, blends of action-romance-comedy-pathos, long run-times, and musical sequences. Stars in the Bollywood system dance though colorful production numbers while lip-synching to songs sung by “playback artists,” pop music stars whose recordings may be sold well before the film is released and account for a major percentage of its profits.
While filmmakers like Baz Luhrman (Moulin Rouge! ) have reached mass audiences in American and European markets with Bollywood-inspired films, and some Indian filmmakers have translated their aesthetic into Western forms (as Shekhar Kapur did with his films Elizabeth  and its sequel The Golden Age ), attempts to create crossover hits like Gurinder Chadha’s Bride & Prejudice (2004), starring one of Bollywood’s biggest stars Aishwarya Rai, have been middling at best. The success of Slumdog Millionaire may mark a turning point in this trend.
Slumdog Millionaire was adapted from the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup, but the original structure is borrowed from the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? which originated in Britain and has nearly a dozen international versions. At each stage of the film, the tension ratchets up another notch in much the same pattern as the show itself. Our hero Jamal (Dev Patel), a street kid (or “slumdog”) with little formal education, faces impossible trivia which he miraculously answers using knowledge gained from his painful life in the Mumbai slums. Each question prompts a flashback, which for the viewer turns the narrative into a kind of guessing game—when will the crucial detail pop into frame and give Jamal his answer?
Though this narrative seems somewhat mechanical, the hooks are compelling, and the characters have enough richness and texture to keep us attentive to them rather than to the self-consciously nifty plotting. Jamal’s relationship with his shrewd, often-sinister brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) is complex and tortured, and the love triangle formed among the brothers and Latika (Freida Pinto), a girl who shares their slum life, lends greater poignancy to the film’s inevitable ending.
Most interesting is how this narrative tries to contain the realistic horrors of India’s urban poverty in conventions more fitting to light musical theater. Some scenes, particularly those involving graphic violence toward children, are stomach-turning, yet they serve a romantic plotline which is joyful at its core. Of course, the lives of actual Indian poor children may include joy and romance. In his memoir Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004), Suketu Mehta writes: “We tend to think of a slum as an excrescence, a community of people living in perpetual misery. What we forget is that out of inhospitable surroundings, the people have formed a community, and they are as attached to its spatial geography, the social networks they have built for themselves, the village they have re-created in the midst of the city, as a Parisian might be to his quartier or as I was to Nepean Sea Road” (55).
But though the film presents Mumbai slum life as awful, there remains about it a stylized, Dickensian sort of awfulness, where children gather in gangs run by a Fagin and spurred by artful dodgers. This is not the slumdog life of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) which approached the setting with a seriousness indebted to the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s. Poverty for Nair (as for Rossellini, Visconti, de Sica, et al.) was depressing and dehumanizing and could be diminished through appropriate social action. For these filmmakers, the cinema was a place to teach the world about horrors unfathomable to those outside their given conditions, and through that teaching, real social change might be possible. Salaam Bombay! even ends with contact information for agencies trying to alleviate the suffering of homeless children.
Slumdog Millionaire, on the other hand, has less didactic aims and focuses more upon the romance of slum life which even the grittiest moments of the film serve to amplify. Mehta’s Maximum City included unforgettable descriptions of toilets in Mumbai, most of which overflow because of the extraordinary population density and minimal attention to sanitation. Toilets like these play an equally unforgettable part in one gross-out sequence of Slumdog Millionaire, but the scene is played more for squirms and giggles than as a serious critique of urban administrative failure. Likewise, the villainous crime lords who complicate the lives of our protagonists engage in vile activities—child prostitution and torture are most prominent—but these elements add weight to their threat without presenting them as insurmountable obstacles to the ultimate happiness of our leads.
And yet, for all of its backing away from serious political implications, Slumdog Millionaire is hard to dislike, largely because of its sincere heart. The film is undeniably a companion piece to Boyle’s Millions, an echo even heard in their titles. Faith is central to both films, and both similarly engage real-life horrors without flinching, yet never allow the central characters to face serious consequences from these horrors. While Millions pits secular, capitalist ambitions against a socially-conscious, Roman Catholic vision of charity, Slumdog Millionaire stages Hindu-Muslim violence as central to Jamal’s young life, and the story is framed by his inscription within Qur’an-like prophecy. Fantasies of wealth among the working classes are also central to these films, much as the Oscars themselves indulge a collective fantasy about watching artists gather amid swells of wealth and fame.
In a recent segment of Charlie Rose’s roundtable interview show, the film critics David Denby and A. O. Scott discussed the 2008 Academy Award nominees. The Academy nods, Scott reminded us, do not reflect true merit but rather reflect “how the Academy wants to present itself.” This observation goes into a long list of truisms about the Oscars that includes chestnuts about the length, tackiness, and self-indulgence of the ceremony—not to mention the fact that the whole event is merely a commercial designed to sell more movie tickets, DVDs, merchandise, and designer clothes. Regarding this year’s best picture winner, the cynical edge to Scott’s comment is that the Academy is not really multi-culturally aware, aesthetically adventurous, or morally conscious but once a year merely pretends to champion all of these virtues.
At the very least, we might take heart that the heap of awards garnered by Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire may indicate a broadening awareness of transnational cinema. You may need to go back as far as 1987 when Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor won the best picture award with a largely non-European cast to find a major Oscar winner with this sort of cultural hybridity. At the fanciful and fantastical core of Danny Boyle’s Bollywood-inspired film is a set of tropes—love conquering all, rags-to-riches, underdogs prevailing—that seem to have cross-cultural appeal. To touch upon realistic horrors without examining them, to provoke our sympathies and culminate with a neat happy ending, to cram a movie full of cinematic delights—these are the goals of Bollywood and Hollywood alike, and Slumdog Millionaire is evidence of truly transnational desire.
Charles Andrews is Assistant Professor of English at Whitworth University.