There is no one to trust.

Slumdog Millionaire

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

          In “Slumdog Millionaire,” the audience is claimed quickly by three children. Their safety alone is an enormous question mark in the dangerous streets that are their only home. Jamal and Salim are brothers who were orphaned when their mother was beaten to death while washing clothes in the filthy water of the town square. An orphaned girl, Latika, joins the boys in their shelter from a rainstorm. 

          By 2006 Bombay has become Mumbai, the business capital of India. Skyscrapers sprout from the debris of the old culture. Cars, chickens, bicycles, thieves, brutes and ordinary people teem in every open space. There is no law, nor any order, in the streets of Mumbai. Corruption, greed, and betrayal are all a child sees. There is no one to trust. 

          It is here that Jamal becomes a contestant on the Indian version of “Do You Want to be A Millionaire?” The clever structure is this: Jamal, who hasn’t had a day of education in his life, is succeeding because he tripped over the answers in one awful way or another in the course of growing up. Every time the sleazy game show host asks him a question, a flashback takes us along a grueling path to the answer in his past. Accused of cheating, Jamal is tortured by police for the truth of how a slumdog could know the answers. By the time the police learn Jamal’s truth, we are soaked in the brutality that is the reality of the Indian slums. 

          The suspense here lies not in whether the boy will come up with the correct answers but in whether he will live or die and whether he will ever again find Latika. From frames A to Z there is never a moment when one of these young people is safe. Director Danny Boyle does a superb job of conveying the low value of a human life. Jamal will remember forever the gas fueled fires burning through the square, the acres of rubble where he ran as a child, the blinding of children so they will become more effective beggars, and sitting on the couplings between railroad cars. When he was small, life meant escape from predators; as he grew up, life became the game of conning tourists. When a tourist hands him a $100 bill after seeing him beaten, we know Benjamin Franklin will be a quiz show answer. Jamal’s life, and that of his beloved Latika are lived in fear with one goal: survival in a culture where that goal is random and usually a matter of luck. 

          Credit Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Rubina Ali, and Dev Patel and Freida Pinto for being so authentic and vulnerable that we care about them; and credit Danny Boyle with turning audiences into a collective that wants to extend the love and support to all the on screen characters who never had a bit of it in the story we have just seen.


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