2 February, 2009Issue 8.2Asia & AustraliaFilm & TVThe Arts

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Danny Boyle’s Daylight Dream

Rachel Whitaker

Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Slumdog Millionaire
Celador Films, 2008
120 minutes

The idealistic arc of Danny Boyle’s latest feature Slumdog Millionaire has inspired many critics to compare the film to 19th-century fiction. According to various writers, the film is “a penny dreadful for the postmodern age” (Washington Post), “a post-globalisation update of a Horatio Alger tale” (Slate), “a minor-scale Dickensian epic” (Village Voice). In other words, it is an implausible fairytale housed on the foundation of aesthetically masterful “social realism”.

Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal Malik, a boy from the slums of Mumbai who witnesses his single mother’s murder at the hands of religious persecutors, his girlfriend’s descent into forced prostitution, and his brother’s involvement with gangsters. Though he lacks a proper education, the 18-year-old Jamal weasels his way onto Who Wants to be a Millionaire, an opportunity that brings him wealth and reunion with the love of his life.

Slumdog’s contrived plot asks the audience to suspend disbelief. But one might expect as much from a director whose films tend to take us outside the confines of common reality. Danny Boyle’s previous work has dealt with heroin addiction (Trainspotting, 1996), the promise of tropical paradise (The Beach, 2000), flesh-eating zombies (28 Days Later, 2002), and outer space (Sunshine, 2007). His cinema dabbles in hallucination, fantasy, illusion and the unknown, nudging viewers to “think outside the box” or disregard it altogether.

Boyle has admitted to his fondness for playing with norms. “One of the great things about changing genres is that you have to relearn your skills each time,” he told The Inside Reel in 2007. “I love the challenge of not knowing the rules and having to learn them again. Then you see if you can avoid the rules, or ignore the rules, or see what you can make work.”

Both Boyle’s oeuvre and process thus centre on the imagination, and Slumdog Millionaire embeds it in its form as well as content. The dreamlike style matches the dreamlike story.

Slumdog’s story resembles a dream insofar as it draws on classic fairytale conventions: orphanhood, unexpected wealth, love despite all odds. The film introduces a classic contemptuous villain, Maman, who wins Jamal’s trust but threatens to sabotage his welfare. Some scenes conjure images of Hansel and Gretel, and a pivotal sequence harkens back to Robin Hood, as the hero swindles a pair of American tourists only to offer the loot to a poor compatriot.

These allusions incorporate images of India’s grittier problems—destitution, Hindu-Muslim strife, and the exploitation of children, among others—though these are treated swiftly and subsequently set aside. Viewers who expect Slumdog to do justice to the exigency of these realities will find the film problematic, as numerous critics already have. But, to be fair, dreams are not documentaries.

Boyle matches the quixotic nature of the story with an extravagant aesthetic. With a mélange of formal devices—including slow-motion, fast editing, tilted camera angles, enriched colour, gaudy subtitles, and a momentary split screen depicting Jamal’s action and memory—Boyle’s ebullient style not only makes for great viewing; it recreates the lawlessness of a dream.

Slumdog is thirdly dreamlike in the context of current events. Amid a panic-inducing economic recession, Jamal’s success on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire—and more significantly, his casual attitude toward the prize money—is an acutely relevant sign of wish fulfilment.

In this respect, Slumdog Millionaire evokes Parker Tyler’s description of the cinema experience as a “daylight dream” in his book The Hollywood Hallucination (1944). In a “world of bread-winning”, Tyler says, cinema’s appeal lies in its ability to draw the working man out of his tedium, to make his fantasies manifest before his very eyes.

“Sitting in offices or standing in factories, repeating the same motions over and over, speedily and flawlessly, the daylight dreamer has his dream, in relation to which the most glittering machine is only a figment of primeval darkness,” Tyler says.

But when the daylight dreamer enters the cinema, he forgets his worldly concerns. “The darkness of the movie theatre is actually the night itself, the night of sleep and dreams,” Tyler writes, and as the viewer forgets his worldly concerns, the daylight dream flashes across the screen, inviting a Hollywood hallucination.

At a time when so many people are fighting to secure their financial future, Slumdog Millionaire offers a particularly alluring daylight dream: a heartening tale of prosperity with an energetic pace and a gorgeous aesthetic. It is a two-hour excursion into uplifting improbability. But as noted, the traditional fairytale elements of the story are nothing new, despite the film’s mesmerising surface. The fact that Slumdog Millionaire so well exemplifies a rather dated 1940s hypothesis (Tyler’s) about the nature of film says something else: while the film may push us to imagine new experiences, what it makes us feel in the dark of the cinema is hardly anything new.

Rachel Whitaker graduated from Harvard University in 2008 with a BA in Visual and Environmental Studies–Film Studies. She currently lives in New York City, where she works at Sirk Productions and FilmAid International.