books, movies

In Defense of Slumdog Millionaire


The question Jamal can’t answer: Why do its critics hate Slumdog Millionaire so much?


We have decided to postpone our Best of 08 movies post a bit longer, possibly until sometime shortly before the Oscars (February 22). When we do finally write that post, it will likely be in the spirit of Matthew Leathers’s Best Of post, aptly titled “Movies Released in 2008 That I Enjoyed at a Somewhat Above Average Level.” 2008 offered no Royal Tenenbaums, no Children of Men, no Brokeback Mountain or The English Patient or National Treasure or There Will Be Blood. (One of those was a joke.) We walked out of no theater this year thinking, “We just witnessed a great movie.” But we left thinking there were plenty of good ones. And the best was Slumdog Millionaire.

Now, if you’ve already read Mr. Leathers’s post, you’ll know that he possesses an all-consuming hatred of Slumdog. “It played like Mumbai 90210,” he writes, adding “I’d pair it up with Crash as the most overrated Best Picture winner if it goes that far.” ( “Okay, okay, it’s starting to sound like I hated this movie,” Matthew says. “I didn’t, I swear.” But then he adds, “The sole mission of my remaining days on Earth will be to disembowel Danny Boyle.”*) 

We could not agree more with him on Crash. (Ben has not hated a movie so much since Magnolia.) And we generally loathe those good-to-mediocre movies that garner surprise Best Picture nominations and harness word-of-mouth support and underdog status to take them straight to the top. Crash is a perfect example. So is A Beautiful Mind. (So too would have been nominees like The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and, although we liked it, Juno.) Many people lump Shakespeare in Love with this group, as if it were a tiresome gnat flitting about the face of the water buffalo Steven Spielberg World War II epic Saving Private Ryan. But how many times have you watched Saving Private Ryan? Do you pop that one in for fun on a Saturday night?** It’s an impressive film meant to be commemorated more than watched. For once, the Academy made the right choice on that one.

We’re afraid Slumdog is being painted with the same brush, especially after winning so many Golden Globes. Matthew links to a blistering review which is not without certain merits. (How did Jamal get picked to appear on the Hindi version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire”?) The most damning charge its critics level against Slumdog is that it’s sentimental and tends, amid certain brutality, toward simplistic, feel-good fantasy, culminating with the ecstatic dance party during the end credits. We loved that sequence. It’s a little silly, certainly far-fetched. But it worked. It’s a reminder that what you just watched was, after all, only a movie, unabashedly romantic and manic in its desire to entertain. Anyone who didn’t expect Jamal and Latika to reunite during the climactic finish was not paying very close attention during the first 90 minutes. This wasn’t going to end like American Beauty. (Or, say, Closer.)

The movie is a bizarre mash of styles, but that’s part of its charm. Telling the story of a boy’s unlikely rise from the slums through the framework of a glitzy quiz show? We thought of two analogues, one trivial and one a bit more substantial. The trivial is Cliff Clavin’s immortal appearance on “Jeopardy!” For anyone who hasn’t seen it, Cliff — a mailman — crushes a neurosurgeon and lawyer on the popular quiz show because all of the categories (Civil Servants, Stamps From Around the World, Beer, Bar Trivia, Celibacy) match exactly Cliff’s limited expertise. (Unlike Slumdog, Cliff loses in Final Jeopardy because he bets all $22,000 on a category he knows nothing about.) 

The other parallel is with Salman Rushdie’s novel Midnight’s Children, which last year won the Booker of Bookers. Midnight’s Children uses a fantastical premise — that all 1001 babies born in the first hour of India’s independence possess special powers, from time travel to gender bending — to tell the story of India’s history through one of those babies, Saleem Sinai, switched at birth and relegated to an upbringing of squalor. Saleem’s special power is telepathy, accomplished through a prodigious schnozz (he is referred to throughout the novel as “the nose”) which grants him the ability to “sniff out” and communicate with each of the other children. Midnight’s Children has echoes of Bollywood in it, but it transcends those to say something profound about India. The parallels to Slumdog are numerous, from the affectionate descriptions of Bombay (now Mumbai) to the Westernization of India (the Hindi “Millionaire”). Likewise, Saleem’s rivalry with the baby he was switched with at birth and their alternate fates resembles Jamal and his brother Salim’s criss-crossing, ultimately divergent paths. Both sets of characters are inextricably linked, dependent but at odds with one another. 

What do Slumdog and Midnight’s Children ultimately have in common? They are both fairy tales. They intermingle history and fantasy through personal narrative. Their outcomes vary (Slumdog is certainly more optimistic), but there is something fanciful in each that is, if you give in to it, winning. (We’re not going to bring Cliff’s “Jeopardy!” appearance back in at this point and argue that “Cheers” dabbled in magical realism, so let’s just drop all comparisons there and move on to the final paragraph.)

We’ll leave the question of whether or not Slumdog deserves “Best Picture” to the Academy Voters, unreliable as they may be. But we hope Slumdog’s detractors will criticize it for what it is, not what it is not. When Jamal phones a friend and Latika, watching the show by the side of the road because of a traffic jam, realizes he is calling her, we didn’t wonder whether she will race back to her car in time to answer the phone. (Everyone knows she will.) By that point we had turned off the part of our brain which regards the moment with ironic detachment. We were simply riveted by what would happen next.




* = We made that last comment up. Forgive us, Matthew! We now welcome you to bring it in the comments.

** = The question of whether a Best Picture should be loved or respected is best saved for another post. There are plenty of Best Pictures — Schindler’s List comes to mind — we would not want to curl up with on a Saturday night, but we can freely admit they deserved to be Best Picture.


28 thoughts on “In Defense of Slumdog Millionaire

  1. I think you can tell by this year’s Oscar nominations that 2008 was a crap year for film. The Reader, seriously? Nobody liked that movie. Slumdog Millionaire is guaranteed to win now.

  2. The complete list of nominees is here. It is criminal that The Reader would get nominated over The Dark Knight. We already hate this year’s Oscars.

    On the other hand, as a nod to Slumdog critics, saying that Dev Patel (Jamal) was snubbed by not being nominated for a Best Supporting Actor is ridiculous. His character alternated between listless and passive. (And just because Clint Eastwood is in a movie doesn’t mean he needs an Oscar for it.)

    Matthew, you seem resigned.

  3. I don’t even want to watch this year, and Oscar night is one of my favorite nights of the year. I have nothing to root for, except for Rourke. And how the hell did the Boss not get a nod? Effing Slumdog got THREE songs? THREE!!! It’s just a crime that neither the Dark Knight or Wall-E didn’t get nominated for Best Picture. The two best movies of the year, hands down. It’s because they aren’t holocaust dramas or set in a foreign land. Malarky, all of it. And no Best Supporting nod for John Ratzenberger’s voice work in Wall-E? I will now walk in traffic.

  4. I actually really liked Eastwood in “Torino.” I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it is the only movie of his I’ve ever seen. He was like a really racist PF Kluge.

    I can’t for the life of me figure out how “Button” got so many nominations. Do Oscar voters just feel compelled to nominate long movies? Because that’s one thing that “Button” did REALLY well. It was very, very, very, very, very, very long.

  5. Matthew — No need to run in traffic! It’s going to be okay!

    (Out of curiosity, why was Wall-E not included in your Best Of post if it was up there with the Dark Knight?)

    Scott — An astute observation about Benjamin Button’s length. Pyramids were built in less time than this movie. I was forced to post this comment under my name as the better half of Voreblog thought much more highly of the movie than I.

  6. I just saw Wall-E on Friday, and let me tell you, my tummy has never felt more warm. Wall-E made me want to get gay married, I was so happy. I feel like I should make an update to the movie post, since I enjoyed it so much.

    And I enjoyed Benjamin Button much more than most. I almost got into a fist fight with my friend Adam over Button and Slumdog the other day. We mutually agreed that we were both a couple of assholes and that was that.

  7. Oh, and I’m on the side of Shakespeare in Love. I remember cheering like hell when it won. It’s in my top 10 now, and I imagine it will always be. I still get a little misted eyed……..and my tummy gets all warmed.

  8. OK, let me clarify something here. I liked “Benjamin Button.” But that’s it. I *liked* it. Is it the best movie of the year, able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the all-time greats? No. Would I ever watch it again? Great Gary Sinise, no way. (Although…Julia Ormond…)

    The thing that bothers me about “Button” is that it — like “Crash,” though not quite as much — is convinced of its own Importance. It has so many Weighty Themes. But as you pointed out in your original review, voreblog, the source material is a 24-page short story, leaving one to suppose that you CAN tell Engaging and Important stories in ways that don’t feel so self-aggrandizing and, um, long.

  9. Oh, LOOK! A hummingbird! It has SIGNIFICANCE!

    Ooooh! Hurricane Katrina! Multiple layers of Meaning!

    Unpack that a little.

  10. The hummingbird and Hurricane Katrina are clearly phallic symbols of an aggressively “male” (backwards air quotes), pun intended, landscape.

    Now let’s read a book about people having sexual relations with the Earth.

    (I look back on this comment with a sense of ambivalence.)

  11. The real question here is, “Has there ever been a movie MORE convinced of its own self-importance than Grand Canyon?”

    I think not.

  12. I am with Leathers on Slumdog. It was a decent movie, but I am not buying the hype. Wall-E, Dark Knight, and esp. Synecdoche NY (Nary a nod, and easily the best filmed oasis I saw in the cinematic desert of 2008) were all much better, artful films. (And what is with the ‘Co-director, India’ credit for Loveleen Tandan? You’re either 2nd unit or you’re not. Did Boyle phone it in from London?)

    I am glad Richard Jenkins got nominated for The Visitor, a film I really wanted to see that didn’t make it to Lower Ohio.

    I laughed really hard the first time I saw Tropic Thunder, and was pretty ashamed about it when I watched it again on dvd. It seemed extremely tedious the 2nd time through. Except for Downey Jr’s performance. Regardless of the middling material, he deserves the nod. But I dont think he will Kevin Kline it to the statue.

    Is it strange that Mangnolia, Grand Canyon, and Crash, are all almost the same movie? Interconnected tales of self-important Los Angelinos in crisis?

  13. I have nothing to contribute because I haven’t seen any of these movies. Although I do believe that the Oscars should reward movies we respect more than movies we love. For instance, I *love* Galaxy Quest, but I realize it doesn’t deserve a place in the pantheon of great films. Respect films often transcend their particular time, while movies we just like a lot tend to become dated. That being said, the two don’t need to be mutually exclusive; part of respecting a movie should come from it’s ability to speak to the audience. In other words, to be watchable.

    OT: I thought the voreblog readership might be interested in knowing that the complete box set of The Wire is on sale for $82:

  14. How long has it been since I saw a movie in a theater? I have no idea.

    That’s the only movie-related question I can answer these days.

  15. Mark, I had never made the connection between Grand Canyon, Magnolia and Crash, but you’re absolutely right. They are the same awful movie and I’d rather shoot a nude hot tub scene with (Oscar winner) Kathy Bates than watch any of them again.

    And who says Galaxy Quest doesn’t deserve a place in the pantheon of great films? Pooh pooh on them.

  16. I recommend going to Vancouver, but only if you’re a sleazebag. Drugs, stripclubs, booze, and a laidback attitude. Right up your alley, Voreblog!

  17. It was right up our alley as we honeymooned there. Drugs, strip clubs and booze were basically the top three reasons we picked it. The laidback attitude was icing.

    Also, we hoped to possibly run into Douglas Coupland and/or The New Pornographers. That didn’t pan out, but man we met a lot of Canadians!

  18. i also recommend lost. perhaps a weekly lost entry from voreblog where others can discuss thoughts about how awesome ben is or the intricacies of hot pocket tossing?

  19. Thanks, Tad, I am awes– oh. You meant Ben Linus.

    I think we could introduce a weekly Lost forum so long as you and Dave Powell spearheaded it.

  20. I have been looking for a video clip of Hurley summarizing the the entire plot of Lost to his mom in about a minute, to post on Tad’s wall. But I have not seen it floatin’ around on the ol’ internet yet.

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