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Gritty Portrait of Real India on Reel: A Review of Slumdog Millionaire

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Movies made by westerners about India have rarely been worth writing home about, ranging as they've done from the appallingly ignorant racism of Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to David Lean's well-intentioned but cringe-making Passage to India, with Alec Guinness in brown face and dhoti, warbling away as Professor Godbole. But once in a while an exception comes along that makes up for the lot of them. I've just seen Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Trainspotting's Danny Boyle from a script by The Full Monty's Simon Beaufoy, based on the page-turning novel Q & A by diplomat Vikas Swarup. Exuberant, exciting, gaudy and gritty in a way that can only be called Dickensian, Slumdog Millionaire brings contemporary Mumbai to life from the seamy side up, and it does so with brio, compassion and all-round cinematic excellence. For the first time since Gandhi, there's genuine Oscar buzz around a movie set in India, with Indian characters, Indian actors and Indian themes.

I'm a huge fan of Vikas Swarup's novel, one of the most delightful reads I've enjoyed in years. It's about an orphan boy called Ram Mohammed Thomas who is about to win a TV quiz show based on Kaun Banega Crorepati and is arrested on suspicion of having got that far by cheating. He's rescued by a female lawyer who gets him to tell his life story and explain how he, an uneducated slum kid, knew the answers to such difficult questions. Ram then tells a number of stories, each of which explains how he knew what he happened to know. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy has changed pretty much all of Swarup's stories, introduced a romantic element and even re-baptised the hero (who is now Jamal Malik). But he has retained the novel's structure and premise, and Danny Boyle has brought its spirit alive in a way that i believe even Swarup would appreciate.

The film will be released in India, both in its original bilingual version and in a version dubbed in Hindi, in January. One fair warning to Indian viewers: its depiction of Indian poverty and slum life is searingly real. It was filmed in large part with small hand-held digital cameras on location in Dharavi and in the Juhu slums, and the mounds of garbage, the cesspits, the overflowing drains are all very present. There is even a scene involving human excrement that is both revolting and hilarious. But this is not, despite all of that, an exercise in the pornography of poverty. Slum life is depicted with integrity and dignity, and with a joie de vivre that transcends its setting. It is easy to see why this movie would appeal to international cinegoers in a way that a bleaker film like City of Joy could not.

I saw the film in New York with an audience made up largely of Indian expatriates. In the enthusiastic discussion that followed, only one person reacted negatively, saying that the film seemed to show all Indians as conniving, unprincipled and ruthless, and that the only compassionate people in the film were a pair of white tourists who give Jamal some money. Danny Boyle reacted to that charge by pointing out that his Scottish characters in Trainspotting were also conniving, unprincipled and ruthless, and that he happened to like to depict people like that. Something tells me that most Indian viewers will take this in stride -- we live in a land largely devoid of larger-than-life heroes, and we have learned to take human beings as they are, which is to say, as grossly imperfect. And the film's hero, played by the teenage British Indian actor Dev Patel with a look that combines intensity and expressiveness and yet seems utterly genuine, is as sincere a protagonist as you could hope to find.

The casting of Slumdog Millionaire is a dream. Anil Kapoor, as the sleazy TV host, diamonds winking in his earlobes, has never been better; the quietly understated Irrfan Khan turns in another bravura performance as the police inspector whose questioning brings out Jamal's story. And the trio of children who play each of the principal characters -- at ages 6, 12 and 18, roughly -- could not be more appealing, more convincing or more gifted. The casting was such a triumph that the casting director, Loveleen Tandon, got promoted to the unusual credit of co-director. She plans to make her own film soon, and her association with Slumdog Millionaire is a great credential.

As a novelist myself, i wondered about the changes made to the book on its way to the screen. Some i could understand; cinema and novels are distinct art forms, and what works well in one medium does not necessarily translate well into the other. In particular, novels can afford to digress in ways that the attention span of movie audiences cannot accept: a film requires one clear over-arching narrative, fewer characters to keep straight, and a common thread from beginning to end. But some of the changes were arguably unnecessary: I lamented, in particular, the loss of 'Ram Mohammed Thomas' and his mongrelised Amar-Akbar-Anthony exemplifying of Indianness. I hope that people will both read the book and see the movie to savour the differing strengths of Swarup's original premise and Danny Boyle's transcreation of it.

But above all, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is the work of an artist at the peak of his powers. India is his palette and Mumbai -- that teeming 'maximum city', with 19 million strivers on the make, jostling, scheming, struggling and killing for success -- is his brush. The portrait that emerges has been executed with bold strokes, vivid colours and striking images. It will stay in the mind's eye a long time.

Originally published in the Times of India, November 23, 2008