Have you ever tried to make a list of the most overused clichés in movie history? If you did, some of the following would probably be on that list: two brothers follow opposite paths, one to honest poverty, the other to crime; a man discovers that his childhood sweetheart has become a prostitute; three characters try to jump onto a moving train to escape the bad guys, but only two of them make it; a love scene ends with a freeze-frame kiss. You can find all these clichés and many, many more in Slumdog Millionaire, the $15-million Anglo-American-Indian movie that became the official sleeper hit of the year, and has a good chance of winning the Academy Award for best picture (it’s nominated for that and nine other Oscars). Danny Boyle, the film’s director, told Jared Miller of the Philadelphia Film Society that the film is about “the human spirit, about how meaningless life is and how wonderful life is at the same time.” But any time you see the words “human spirit” attached to a movie, run for the hills. You’re about to see a manipulative film in which the scrappy underdog wins against impossible odds. In other words, a low-budget version of The Mighty Ducks.
Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik (played as an adult by Dev Patel and as a child by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Chheda), who goes from being an orphan in the slums of Mumbai to unexpectedly winning big on the Indian version of the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The plot is built around a series of absurd coincidences: every question Jamal is asked on the game show has some connection to something he’s gone through in his life, and triggers a memory that helps him answer the question correctly. The novel it’s based on, Q&A by Vikas Swarup, used this as a linking device to flash back to key moments in the hero’s life; the implausibility wasn’t important because the book presented itself as a dark comedy. But in adapting it into a film, Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy felt that they needed a more earnest, straight-faced approach to the story. What’s more, they decided that, as Beaufoy wrote in the Guardian, “only love can overwhelm the seductive narrative of money that threatens to swamp the story”; having Jamal win a lot of money wouldn’t be enough of a fantasy. So he and Boyle created the character of Latika, Jamal’s true love, and the story of how he keeps losing and finding her over and over again. (She progresses from an angelic little girl to a hooker with a heart of gold to a gangster’s cynical mistress, an impressive number of clichés for one character to embody.) The movie they finally made was about how love can triumph over everything, even the poverty, violence and organized crime of India’s Oliver Twist-style slums.
No wonder they might be on their way to an Oscar; Slumdog has the perfect formula for getting nominated for best picture. There’s nothing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves more than a tear-jerking, inspiring story with a dose of social commentary—a Hollywood underdog movie with an artistic sheen. Many Best Picture winners have been like that: there was Rain Man, in which autism became cool, and Forrest Gump, which informed us that stupidity makes you more likely to have an impact on history. Not to mention two very different Oscar winners that are both a bit like Slumdog: Schindler’s List and Rocky. Like Schindler’s List, which gave the Holocaust a happy ending, Slumdog portrays the horrors of poverty as just stumbling blocks on the hero’s path to romance. And like Rocky, it’s the story of a poor loser with a heart of gold who gets an unexpected chance in a nationally televised event. If those films won Best Picture, why shouldn’t Slumdog, a blend of the Oscars’ two favourite types of movies?
But Slumdog seems to go beyond the feel-good nature of previous Oscar contenders; it loads its story with every possible bit of old-fashioned hokum, from the spunky orphan boy on the roof of a train to the gangster dying in a bathtub full of money. Beaufoy has claimed that his inspiration for this tone was the city of Mumbai itself, where “the usual, mealy-mouthed English nuance and subtext is being replaced by something that is bordering on melodrama.” But it seems odd to credit the unique spirit of Mumbai for a collection of plot devices that have long been familiar from American and British movies. One climactic moment comes when Jamal is asked a question about the one member of the Three Musketeers he has never been able to remember. That twist goes as far back as The Honeymooners, in which a quizmaster asked Ralph Kramden about Swanee River, the only song he wasn’t familiar with. At that moment, Slumdog is a tribute not to Bollywood but to the many American sitcoms that have used that gag.
None of this ought to matter much. Coincidences, clichés and implausible plot twists are part of any story, especially the Charles Dickens novels that were a major influence on Slumdog; Boyle told Seattle Weekly that the Mumbai of his film “must’ve been London in Dickens’ time.” If the characters are interesting enough, then the craziest plot twists can be justified. But Jamal isn’t exactly a character. He’s more of a projection of every audience fantasy about the nicest, sweetest fellow that could ever exist. Though he sometimes tells little lies or does con-man tricks for comic-relief purposes, he spends most of the movie being totally moral and perfect, the good boy in contrast to his older brother Salim (the one who becomes a gun-wielding criminal).
Boyle and Beaufoy even made sure that he doesn’t actually care about anything as low and common as money: in their version, he goes on Millionaire not because he wants the money but because he knows Latika watches the show, and hopes she’ll see him and call him up. His main trait is a willingness to humiliate himself for love, whether it’s diving into a pool of excrement to get a movie star’s autograph or submitting to torture by the Mumbai police. But he doesn’t do much else to qualify as the hero. The smarmy host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (Anil Kapoor) at least has a personality; Jamal is a blank slate with a good memory.
This works against the movie’s attempt to sell him as the new Rocky, an underdog we can identify with all the way. Rocky not only had interests and quirks to set him apart as a character, he actually trained hard to become a better fighter. Jamal wins only through sheer dumb luck; we’re supposed to believe that he deserves to win not because he’s bothered to educate himself, but because “it is written.” It’s the ultimate movie fantasy from Hollywood, Bollywood, or any other “wood”: to succeed, you don’t really need to know anything or do anything. You just have to be a good guy, and destiny will drop a happy ending into your lap. Slumdog wants to be Rocky, but it’s more like Rocky III; “it is written” is just the new spin on Eye of the Tiger.
Of course, Rocky III was a big hit, so that comparison may not be a bad thing; movies about underdogs who win against impossible odds are usually successful. And Slumdog came along at a better time than usual for this kind of movie: with the current economic situation, audiences are tired of depressing movies and want to be told that nice guys can, in fact, finish first. A movie that opened in theatres around the same time as Slumdog is Paul Blart: Mall Cop; it’s also a low-budget production about a despised nobody who unexpectedly becomes a hero, and it also became a surprise hit. Slumdog just takes that formula and adds a few things that appeal to award-givers’ sense of what makes an important movie. It has an exotic location; it has points to make about poverty and racism; and most of all it has incredibly gimmicky camerawork, with an endless succession of tilted angles, washed-out colours, and slow/fast motion. A conventional story with a few arty or socially conscious touches is what Hollywood thinks of as a great movie; otherwise, how do you explain the Best Picture wins for American Beauty or Crash?
It may be that all this Oscar-baiting won’t be enough to get Slumdog an actual Oscar. It’s already encountered controversy over accusations it exploits Indian poverty for the benefit of Westerners and allegations that the child actors weren’t paid enough. (The producers responded by announcing that they would use some of the profits to help the underprivileged in Mumbai.) Even if these controversies turn out to be unfounded, they might hurt the film’s appeal with Academy voters. But the real question is what will happen when Slumdog’s novelty wears off: will it turn out to be an enduring feel-good classic, like Rocky, or an embarrassment like Forrest Gump? We may already be getting the answer in India, where Slumdog is not a box-office hit the way it’s been in America or Europe. It may be that when the location of Slumdog Millionaire isn’t exotic, all that’s left is a movie with a whole lot of clichés and not much else. Unless you count the big dance number at the end.