Admirers of good cinema everywhere will be delighted with the triumph of British director Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire at the Golden Globe Awards, putting it in sight of the Oscars. But it has a special meaning for Indians, particularly much-maligned Bollywood. For although the film was a British entry with a British actor of Indian origin playing the hero, it is essentially an Indian product — based on a novel by an Indian, co-produced by an Indian, and filmed in India with an Indian cast. The icing on the cake is of course A.R. Rahman’s music, one of the four categories in which the film was honoured. By winning four Globes (for best film, best musical score, best director, and the best screenplay) against some serious competition, the film took its own creators, including screenplay writer Simon Beaufoy, by surprise. Such overwhelming recognition of the quality of Slumdog Millionaire by some of the world’s most influential critics (Golden Globe awards are given by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association) is no doubt a huge achievement for the team behind the film. But it is also a triumph of meaningful cinema: an affirmation that good movies are truly global.
On the face of it Slumdog Millionaire, adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A, is the story of the struggle of an orphan boy from the slums of Mumbai who ends up winning the top prize in the Indian version of the television show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” But Mr. Boyle uses the simple rags-to-riches Bollywood formula to explore the reality of modern India — the helplessness of India’s teeming poor, the horrors of child exploitation, communal violence, and widespread cynicism and apathy. The film has been praised for its ‘Dickensian’ portrayal of modern India. Critics familiar with Mr. Doyle’s work have called it his best work so far. He rips through the dark underbelly of a ‘shining India’ much the same way Aravind Adiga did it in his wonderful Booker-winning novel The White Tiger. The difference, though, is that for all its hard-edged grittiness, Slumdog Millionaire is punctuated by dollops of hope — a socialist-style belief in a new dawn. Mr. Boyle is able to detect humour and optimism even in the depths of gloom without appearing to romanticise poverty. He is also not coy about using elements of popular cinema to make the film accessible, which makes it work at the level of entertainment as well as serious social comment. The global economy may be in terrible shape, hurting hundreds of millions of people, but in the creative realm it’s been a good time for the underdog.