Something’s Always Wrong / Take Five: The Real Cheating of Slumdog Millionaire
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on January 10, 2009
Spoilers like the Oakland Raiders
So I finally got around to seeing the inevitable sleeper of the 2008 Oscars last night, and the movie was predictably wonderful. Even if the movie hadn’t been any good, I’d appreciate its existence for catapulting Danny Boyle–easily one of the most brilliant, exciting and versatile directors of the past two decades, and quite arguably the single most underrated–back into the limelight. But the movie was good, quite certainly–epic but charming, gritty but beautiful, the whole deal. But I still have a rather large bone to pick with the movie, and if you have even the most cursory knowledge of this blog, you should have a pretty good idea what it is.
The movie’s framing device–of main character Jamal going on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? because he knows that his lost love will be watching, and ending up nearing the maximum winning amount due to all of the questions pertaining to important (and usually tragic) events in his life–is a clever one, for sure, and the movie is undoubtedly richer for it. However, as a game show junkie for the majority of my existence, and as a one-time GS alum myself, I can’t help but be irked at the large number of gigantic suspensions of diseblief the movie requires to buy into it. Admittedly Indian game shows may differ somewhat from their American counterparts, but there are some basic game show rules so universal that I don’t believe for a second that they could even be different halfway around the world. To wit:
- There’s no way that Jamal even gets on this show in the first place. Not because he’s a slumdog, or a chaiwala or whatever class denigration the movie gives him, but because the dude has no personality whatsoever. Which isn’t to say that you need to be Eddie Izzard to get on a game show, but the kid’s so moon-faced and emotionally intense that it’s unbelieably unlikely that he’d pass any sort of screening process. Think about it–when was the last time you watched Millionaire, and the contestant just gave expressionless, one-word responses to Regis/Meredith’s bantering, or straight-up, elboration-less answers? No, it’s all “Well, funny story, Reg,” or “Actually, Mer, I think I know this one ‘coz once when I was in third grade…” Plus, what kind of Fastest Finger could Jamal have possibly won? He doesn’t seem to know the answer to anything besides the Q’s he gets right on the show.
- In the film’s climax, Jamal’s lost love Latika realizes that he is calling the phone that his brother Salim gave her, because she hears him mention that Salim was his Phone-a-Friend on TV, and manages to get to the phone in time. All well and good, except for one thing–you can probably count the number of game shows in the world that are broadcast live on one hand, and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? certainly isn’t one of them, here or in India. My friend who I saw the movie with knew someone who used her as a Phone-a-Friend during an appearance on Millionaire sometime over the summer, and she thinks the show might finally be airing sometime in the next few weeks. In reality, Jamal would probably have to wait at that fucking train station for close to half a year before he could even have hope of Latika coming through.
- Particularly insulting to my intelligence was the scene after the show’s host slips an intentionally wrong answer to Jamal out of distrust and jealousy of his oncoming celebrity status. After using the 50/50 to narrow the choices down to the correct answer and the wrong answer fed to him by the host, Jamal either realizes that the host is misdirecting him, doesn’t want to cheat, or realizes that he knows it anyway, and chooses the right answer. And the host, baffled at Jamal’s defiance, keeps needling him–“Are you sure you don’t want to pick [the other answer]?” He even sort of tries to make a case for why Jamal should pick the wrong answer. I’m sorry–there might be game show hosts out there that are that morally shady, but there are none that are so blatantly unprofessional.
- Speaking of game show hosts–why are they never presented in a positive light in movies? What kind of phobia are we displaying of these purveyors of good fortune and mirth when the most genteel of them presented on-screen are merely scumbags (Anil Kapoor here, Philip Baker Hall in Magnolia) and the worst are just straight up killers (Sam Rockwell in Confessoins of a Dangerous Mind, Richard Dawson in The Running Man)? I mean some of ’em are a little cheesy, sure, but at least a couple must be decent citizens, right? I think the profession needs a Wrestler-like focus picture to give it a certain dignity. Get Anthony Michael Hall his first Oscar nod, perhaps.
- And of course, the worst of all–this is supposed to be a show where even the greatest intellectual minds of India have yet to get to the final stage of the show, right? But when Jamal gets to the final question of the show, it’s just about naming one of the Three Musketeers? No offense, guys, but are the greatest intellectual minds of India the equivalent of vending machine stockers in the United States or something? I mean, the book might not be as popular in India, but Jamal and Salim were reading it in school, so clearly it’s not particularly obscure, either. (Though to be completely honest, I thought the answer was D’Artagnan. And that’s why you’ll never see me on a game show where there’s even a slight possibility I’ll get a question about something besides music, movies or TV).
Also, anyone else think Salim got kind of a bum rap in this movie? I was pulling for him most of the way.