In a Danny Boyle movie you focus on who’s running. Picture Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, hurtling down a high-street. Or Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later, outpacing the dead. Slumdog Millionaire – Boyle’s latest – starts with a posse of Indian boys running. They’re trying to escape security guards in the story, but the real reason they run is: for the rush. As the drums beat on the soundtrack, you feel it. The rush. Velocity. Not only of the boys, but of their country. The reason Boyle seems born again as a director on this movie is because India today is sprinting. You want to know what becoming a global superpower feels like? Run!
A child of Mumbai’s slums gets all the way to the final question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Fate has brought him to this point, but the Indian police think he’s cheating. The kid from the slums is called Jamal Malik. He’s in love with a girl called Latika. He tells the police (in a line you have to love if you love movies): “I went on the show because I thought she’d be watching.” Because it’s Jamal’s destiny to win, every question he’s been asked has it’s answer in this girl (is this a joke on how “the girl” is cinema’s answer to everything?). He had her once and he lost her. He hasn’t come this far to lose again.
The set-up for Slumdog Millionaire allows for a lot of flashbacks. So to say one person plays Jamal would be incorrect. In the scenes set in the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? studio, a British actor named Dev Patel plays Jamal. And he’s good. You feel his devotion. But for me, the real Jamal is the kid who plays him as a six year old, the one who wades through shit to get a movie star’s autograph. This scene takes some explaining, but – what the hell. As boys, Jamal and his older brother Salim make money maintaining a toilet. The toilet is a little more than a wooden shack with a hole in the floor, but working men pay to use it. One day, because Jamal is using the toilet and… having trouble, Salim is forced to turn away a customer. Irate, Salim locks Jamal in just as a private helicopter flies overhead. A roar goes up from the people outside. Jamal realises his favourite movie star is onboard the helicopter! But the door is locked. The only way out is through the hole. So Jamal drops – and emerges brown. I have never seen a scene like this in movies, but it’s undoubtedly at this point that that shit-caked boy becomes a hero.
Reader, I met Danny Boyle. And he’s a whirligig, a source of perpetual motion. If you ever wondered: why the running? It’s because Danny Boyle movies have Danny Boyle’s heartbeat. The real wonder is how he stayed in Britain so long. Britain, where people treat enthusiasm is like syphilis. India has reawakened Danny Boyle. At the talk I attended, he spoke of finding his ideal child actors – and how they only spoke Hindi. Which meant a third of his movie would have to be in Hindi (a move the film studio greeted with “a chasm of silence”). But he did it anyway. The way he makes all his unabashed best decisions. Everything that makes Slumdog Millionaire work comes down to this: a willingness to risk. As the closing credits roll, the cast dance as if they were in a Bollywood musical. Why do it? Risk!
India today is where America was a century ago. That’s the real story of Slumdog Millionaire. Jamal Malik could be a Jack London character. He’s got the same resilience, the same honest heart. Can audiences in the West accept our time is over? (I’m British, so knowing my time has passed is second nature for me.) Oh, come on. You see how these kids run. They move like they’re tethered to the future. And they’re the poor kids of the Subcontinent! What propels them – what propels the movie – is the filthy, glorious momentum of life, that thing which we who live in the wreckage call: progress! It isn’t sleek or clean or modern to look at, but don’t mistake it for catastrophe. Like Jamal, you can trust where it’s headed.