On Hype

After watching Slumdog Millionaire, at the urging of a few, very impressed, people, I start to wonder about hype.

Slumdog uses the structure of the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to hang on a kind of biography cum romance of Jamal – the questions spark memories of how he knows the answer, and also provides the opportunity to see how he got from impoverished street child to gameshow contestant, and why.

While the film is well made, it’s not on the same level as Trainspotting, also directed by Danny Boyle.

And I wonder why it has struck such a note with people. It won four Golden Globes – for score, director, screenplay, and drama. While I agree that the score is good, it is the cinematography, rather than the directing, that really stands out.

My suspicion is that the film is serious and dramatic in it’s treatment of the experience of a dangerous and impoverished childhood – the best scenes in the film are when the three main characters are around 6 – and has more at stake than a standard romantic plot, while still (SPOILER) fulfilling the appealing ‘rags to riches’ and romantic ‘happily ever after’. It’s a gritty drama about violence and poverty with a feel-good framing device and ending. Would it be cruel to call it drama-lite?

The audience feels the anxiety and emotional weight of serious drama, with all the social and political questions it raises, while still enjoying the catharsis of a mostly happy ending. There’s even a dance during the credits (a nod to Bollywood that I thought was actually quite sweet and clever).

But doesn’t the happy ending kind of pull the punch? In the world Boyle’s shown us, there are only moments of relaxation – his characters live hard lives, and have to make sometimes callous decisions. The conceit of the show allows the audience to assume an escape, but it also pulls focus. Not all the beggar children can win millions of rupees and be saved by the purity of true love. They have to keep stealing or whoring or working for gangsters.

Maybe that is what Boyle wants to stick with us. While the main characters escape, and we’ve left the theatre relieved by their reprieve, will the images of the blind beggar children slowly float through our consciousness? A spoonful of sugar to help the memory go down?

Though the film is good, it certainly doesn’t live up to the hype – it doesn’t have that thing, that je ne sais quoi that makes a film impressive. It’s enjoyable, but it doesn’t quite stick.


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