The film is a frontrunner for Oscar glory and it would be a shame if it loses out to the paint-by-numbers Oscar bait that’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and the other mediocre fare on offer. I exclude the excellent The Wrestler – a film imbued with the fin de siècle mood gripping much of the West. Slumdog Millionaire, to be released in SA at the beginning of March, follows the young years of a Mumbai orphan – from his wretched existence in the slums of India’s financial capital and the centre of the movie industry to his appearance on the Indian version of the television quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Along the way he’s confronted with a long line of corrupt government officials, gets caught up in a murderous religious riot and is IF IT HASN’T HAPPENED ALREADY, the nickname “slumdog millionaire” is set to become part of the popular lexicon. Calling someone a slumdog millionaire works well as a compliment when you’re referring to someone who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps to overcome great disadvantage and make good. (South Africa is littered with examples – and not just in the ruling party, the hip-hop and Afrikaans music business.)
The new film of the same title from director Danny Boyle ( Trainspotting, The Beach) – inevitably called the “feel-good movie of the decade” – is firmly in the rags to riches fairytale vein. Slumdog Millionaire won’t be the first film this year to be marketed that way, be sure of it. Without feel-good budgets, feel-good interest rates, feel-good stock markets, etc, the movie business has got a lock on feel-good anything. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Hollywood and Bollywood are doing better than a year ago: it remains the cheapest form of escapism as long as you don’t buy the popcorn or the watery Coke. enslaved by callous criminals. Even the TV show host is a venal monster.
How do you square that with the feel-good factor? Not easily, and Slumdog Millionaire isn’t without its critics. The glib, relentlessly upbeat tone of the film amid all the squalor and despair does become grating, although I won’t call it poverty porn as some have done. Anyone who has ever visited Mumbai would realise the portrayal of the condition the vast majority of its inhabitants live under is accurate. Perhaps Vikas Swarup, long-time Indian deputy High Commissioner to SA and author of the book on which the film is based, could bring Alexandra to life in the same way as he did Mumbai. It would come closer to reality than our only Oscar winner – Tsotsi – ever did.
The current global economic situation (I’ve run out of ways of describing the current financial state of affairs: perhaps “economic death spiral”, as one US comedian put it, is more appropriate) has supplied Slumdog Millionaire with added resonance.
The parade of the once-powerful, wellconnected Davos men called to task for their financial failures continues. The public humiliation of the bosses of the big banks in Britain last week following their mea culpa, of sorts, were fairly tame compared to the treatment the investment bankers in the United States got for awarding bonuses, lavishly refurbishing offices and going on junkets even as Wall Street was burning. Those lining up for Barack Obama’s latest trillion-dollar package will face even harsher grilling.
The film’s commercial and critical success is probably to be expected. The millionaire slumdogs who occupied the seemingly indestructible world of high finance and politics are the outcasts in the new order. Slumdog Millionaire is pure wish fulfilment, but the feel-good factor is as high as seeing those who squandered the world’s riches being brought to heel.