I remember picking up Q & A a few years ago at an airport bookstore. Written by Vikas Swarup, it has an intriguing concept; a young man from the slums improbably answers all the questions on a game show modeled after “Who wants to be a millionaire”. He is hauled up by the police to investigate if he had any outside help. His explanations about his knowledge of each question form the chapters of the book.
Unfortunately, as it happens with many English books written in India, the style is pedestrian. Like Chetan Bhagat’s recent books, Q & A reads more like a script than a novel, which might have been its attraction.
Danny Boyle, who directs Slumdog Millionaire, ruthlessly pares the book of all its fluff. Instead of an improbably and ambiguously named Ram Mohammad Thomas, we now have Jamal Malik, Muslim resident of Dharavi. When the movie begins, we see Jamal being tortured at a police station. The disbelieving cops prod him (literally and metaphorically) to explain how he, a humble chaiwalla in a call center, could know the answers to questions in categories that have left many learned contestants in the dust.
As the film progresses, we are taken on an exhilarating tour of the grimy underbelly of Bombay, as Jamal explains how the journey of his life has made him peculiarly suited to that particular set of questions. From a childhood memory of religious riots to a stint in a scary orphanage to an encounter with the Mumbai mafia as an adult, Slumdog Millionaire is a pulsating look at a city whose predominant scent is not that of feces (though that plays a memorable role in the movie) but that of survival.
A few quibbles – Dev Patel as Jamal Malik has a cultured accent completely out of place for a man out of a slum; The language keeps switching between Hindi and English, not always appropriately – I think the movie would have been great in the Hinglish patois that is spoken in Mumbai. Still, the acting is great overall. The child actors are remarkable, often better than their adult counterparts. Irfan Khan as the callous inspector who slowly comes to believe Jamal’s bizarre explanation is good as usual. Anil Kapoor as the pompous, patronizing game show host is perfectly cast- he delivers the performance of a lifetime.
There are some unpleasant bits – anybody who is familiar with Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s claim to fame, knows that the director does not shy away from gore. Despite some horrifying scenes( one prolonged one dealing with blinding children to make them beggars was so awful I squeezed my eyes shut and jammed my hands over my ears and was thankful that I had helped out ADAA this year) Slumdog is not a depressing movie. Aided by Rahman’s pounding and sometimes discordant background score, it is a throbbing, electrifying look at Mumbai that entertains every second. It is a pity that the best masala film out of Bollywood this year had to be directed by a man from Manchester, England.
Directed by Danny Boyle
*ring Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto, Irfan Khan
My rating 4.5 out of 5 stars.