I hadn't heard of Slumdog Millionaire until a few months ago, when it garnered attention in the Toronto Film Festival. A heavily hyped film set in India? About an unlikely game show contestant who can answer tough trivia questions because of the tougher experiences in his life? This sounded familiar.
About three years ago I came across a novel entitled Q & A on the new release shelf in the local library. As is the fate of so many impulse selections, I started reading it but didn't get very far. Great premise, bad execution. At the time I failed to notice this statement on the book jacket: Q & A "is being translated into eighteen languages and is due to be made into a film."
After seeing an advanced screening of the movie, I forced myself to try the book again. The results are clear: Slumdog Millionaire improves upon its source material in almost every possible way. Better and clearer protagonist (Dev Patel), a better interrogating character (Irrfan Khan), more meaningful stakes, and flashback vignettes that are much more plausible. Credit screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) for preserving the premise but creating a stronger, more unifying vision -- and, though I hate to admit this, a much needed Western touch.
Not that native influences aren't present. For example, I liked how the game show host (Anil Kapoor) talked in the Hindi equivalent of Spanglish, a language hybrid where English sentences were infused with homegrown slang and suffixes. That's totally realistic. I may have been the only one in the audience who fully understood him, but no one else was complaining. I also appreciated the music, a mix of pulsing instrumentation and Bollywood pop; there's a train sequence that finally made me understand what M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" was all about.
Director Danny Boyle also made Trainspotting, and I bring this up because he manages to top his worst-toilet-in-Scotland scene, with appalling but humorous results here. His film is uncompromising and at times not easy to watch. There's violence depicted, some of it against children, and other dark themes that only seem surprising when you're a safe distance away from the setting.
If you haven't heard too much about this movie, you must be wondering what the big deal is, and why reactions have been so divisive. I found it rewarding, and liked it tremendously, but I think you should be prepared. Yes, it's a crowd-pleaser, but it's not for every crowd.