I watched Slumdog Millionaire last evening. If it wins the Oscar for best film, it will be one of the weaker movies to have done so. However, I'd rate it higher than past winners like Driving Miss Daisy and Braveheart, and at about the same level as Million Dollar Baby. (The paragraphs that follow reveal some plot details. If you don't want to know about those, stop reading now)
Slumdog departs substantially from the novel on which it is based, Vikas Swarup's Q & A, about which I wrote in a previous post. The basic premise has been retained: a poor youth wins a quiz show because the questions asked happen to connect with episodes in his life. But everything from the name of the main character to the questions themselves has been altered. For the most part, the changes work. The film is less sleazy than the novel, has much more heart. Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the screenplay, understands Bombay better than does Vikas Swarup. Recognising that an episodic format is easier to pull off in fiction than in cinema, Beaufoy has added a framing romance and a love-hate fraternal relationship which provide the film interesting personalities and a compact narrative arc.
The three main characters, Jamal, his brother, Salim, and the girl he loves, Latika, are each played by three actors, one for childhood scenes, one for adolescence and one for adulthood. Eight of these nine actors perform satisfactorily, but the adult Salim is a washout, robbing the film of intensity at crucial moments.
Another drawback is the film's failure to come up with a coherent explanation for the actions of the quizmaster, played by Anil Kapoor. In the book, the superstar host has a financial stake in the show. The prize money is a billion rupees rather than the 20 million of the film. The producers don't actually have the billion, forcing the host to place obstacles in the contestant's path. Anil Kapoor is far less villainous than his literary counterpart, but he does mislead Jamal at one point, for no clear reason.
Slumdog Millionaire, being a Hollywood production, faced copyright issues that the novel did not. To ward off potential lawsuits, they chose to collaborate with Celador, the makers of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, precisely replicating the name, sets and format of the worldwide hit. Naturally, they dropped the scam angle, but couldn't come up with an adequate alternate motivation for Anil Kapoor's deceit.
Indians will, of course, frequently find the use of English jarring, and receive as outlandish or banal a few scenes that people with no knowledge of India are likely to consider deeply interesting and insightful. But that's unavoidable in a project of this sort. Slumdog offers plenty of visual excitement, though of a rather horrific sort, even for locals, and certainly for Indians who have never been to the city, because the terrain of Bombay is so underexplored despite the Hindi film industry being based here.