I mean, Slumdog Millionaire was good and all, a lovely bit of directing and cinematography and general moviemaking. I truly enjoyed the way director Danny Boyle unspooled his story, having found an ingenious way to thread the story of a man in peril (a game show contestant being tortured so he’ll confess to cheating) with plausible and intriguing reasons to flash backward over this man’s remarkable life.
Boyle loads his movie with a number of striking visuals, and keeps the tension high as it cuts back and forth between Modern Jamal, the lovelorn and literally tortured bootstrappin’ slumdog, and Coming-of-Age Jamal, the Oliver Twist of Mumbai, who grows up staying one step ahead of the authorities, the victims of his grifts, and the human sharks who prey on the weak.
But well-crafted tension isn’t the same as having characters you care about put in a situation you care about, and halfway through this movie I had the sneaking suspicion I was being manipulated. The orphaned Jamal, his protective older brother Malik, and the wayward waif Latika make a compelling trio, facing horrible odds and worse conditions — but before long I could feel my emotions being tugged along by the strings of the story’s contrivances.
Jamal and Latika are clearly Meant To Be, yet they are Eternally Starcrossed, and they face a series of Bad Men Who Would Crush All Hope. Very early in their love story, you could see the rails that were going to carry these two perfectly beautiful people toward their beautifully perfect ending (including the telegraphed importance that The Three Musketeers was going to play in a pivotal moment of Jamal’s gameshow quest. Ugh! We all knew that the Happy Ending was going to hinge on knowing the name of the Third Musketeer — they practically announced it in flashing subtitles. )
So what’s wrong with that? Isn’t a happy ending a worthwhile destination? Can’t we all believe in a guy from the bottom who comes out on top? Of course. And archetypes can still be compelling, rewarding pieces of a story. But not when those archetypes are pushing buttons marked “Will He Ever Find Her?” and “Doesn’t He Know She Loves Him?” and “Will the Prodigal Brother Return?” and “You Will Now Feel a Brief Cycle of Hope-Dismay-Hope!”
Ever since Crash won Best Picture for 2005, I’ve been concerned that Academy voters secretly love having their emotions tripped and triggered like so many switches on a wall plate. Contrivance and coincidence conspire to tell you what to feel and when. Emotions aren’t so much earned as preprogrammed and expected like the drop on a theme park log flume. What’s next Hollywood? A Karate Kid remake vying for top Oscar?
Bah. Bah to manipulation. If you’ve seen the movie, follow along with me while I try, without a lot of rewrite and redo, to shift the movie to a slightly more palatable emotional place for my tastes.
The J. Drew Scott One-Step Plan for Fixing ‘Slumdog Millionaire’
1. Have Jamal lose the game show. Not just lose it, but walk away from it willingly.
In a climactic moment of the film, Jamal calls his brother for a “lifeline” on the quiz show’s final question — but ah! His brother has given the phone to the former caged bird Latika, and — ah! ah! — it is she who answers his call on live TV. (As a matter of charity, I’m ignoring yet another grossly manipulative moment when the phone is ringing at length while Latika is too far away to answer it. Oh! Will she get to the phone in time? If the answer to that question had been no, maybe we would be getting somewhere. But no, nyah nyah, made ya sweat — she answers Just In Time!)
So there she is, unexpectedly (for Jamal, at least) saying hello to him over the airwaves for the first time as a free woman. She tells him she’s safe; he asks if she knows the answer to the question (Three Musketeers, remember? Remember?), and she says no, she’s never known the answer.
Huh. I wanted her to say something a little less concerned with game shows. Something human. If you’re going to write a romance, have her say something romantic! Like:
Latika: I’m running, Jamal! I’m running and I don’t care what happens as long as I can get to you!
And that’s Jamal’s cue. He admits to the whole world that this game show lark was only a means to finding her. Now he’s won the real prize. So:
Host: Well, what’s your final answer, Jamal?
Jamal: (standing up and ripping off his mike) I don’t care. Keep your money! I’ve got something better now.
Jamal runs off the set.
Suddenly, I can believe in raw human emotion, in the power of love … and not in the Candy Colored Magical Fairy Who Helps People Win Against Impossible Odds. She’s the same Hollywood pixie who helps riverboat gamblers come up with a fourth ace on the final five-card draw, and horses with prosethetic legs win the Kentucky Derby.
Nope, instead, Jamal walks away from the money — won’t even take a guess at the right answer — in order for him to get what he really wants: the woman he’s always loved. The movie can still close the same way, with cheering crowds clustered around TVs nationwide, everyone exulting in harmony with their fellow man, followed by a Bollywood-style Thriller dance. Of course they (and we) would cheer. Isn’t this love story that just played out before India’s eyes on live television more fantastic and feel-good than a guy who guesses his way to the top?
Besides, everybody knows, winning the lottery is just the beginning of real problems. Pressure and public expectation and people coming out of the woodwork with their palms out… Save yourself a ton of headache, slumdog. You got the cookie of your dreams — don’t try to take the whole bakery, too.