It won a ton of Oscars. To date, only this and Schindler's List have managed to win Best Picture, Director and Screenplay at all three of the BAFTAs, Oscars and Golden Globes. Warner Bros didn't think it would sell and was going to send it straight to DVD, but in the end it topped the worldwide box office (excluding North America) and to date has taken 377 million.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I thus had my expectations set a bit wrong for this one. It didn't hurt the film, though. It's a more down-to-earth movie than I'd expected, but absolutely not an art film. It's exciting, scary, violent, thrilling and has a cool ending with heart. It's also fun.
On one level, it's Who Wants To Be A Millionaire: The Movie. This isn't a bad thing, actually. There's a reason why that show's been a worldwide hit. You've got the drama of that show at its juiciest, but at the same time that's just one element in a movie that's far bigger and richer than that. We begin with Dev Patel being tortured by policemen, because he's a orphan from the slums and yet seems to know all the answers and is now through to the final round. He must have cheated. It's obvious. The only question is how. However once they get him talking, it turns out that every single question he's been asked was about something with significance in his past. Maybe a gangster taught him the lyrics to a particular song, or maybe he knows who was in an old film because as a child he practically worshipped that particular actor. Patel must be the luckiest man in India, but it's not him who chose the questions.
For most of the film, this functions as a framing story. It all merges at the end, which is great, but until then we're being told about Patel's life from childhood until the present. He became an orphan when he was young, when his mother was killed. He and his brother thus spend their childhoods roaming around on the streets with no one providing for them or even noticing their existence. This India is scary. The film's tone isn't as unrelenting as, say, Salaam Bombay, but this is still a world where the police will torture suspects and ignore a man burning to death in front of them. Evil is done that was beyond my understanding until the reasons were explained afterwards. This is a Darwinian existence and those who survive will be tough. They're thieves and liars. You can't trust anyone. It's a surprise our heroes are still alive just after the stunt they pull on the train, but somehow they keep managing not to die.
However it's also entertaining. I was laughing out loud at the episode with the toilet.
What's more, Patel gets through that without turning into a criminal. He's honest, except of course when he's a massive bullshit artist. He has a friend he cares about, lots. What you see is what you get with him, as is shown when he uses his "ask the audience" lifeline in a way that makes him look retarded.
As a film, I have no criticisms of it at all. However a number of people have had problems with its political correctness, not all of which I can dismiss. The main one is linguistic. Dev Patel is from London, not India, and apparently his accent is audibly British English. (Boyle had trouble finding a suitably weedy, downtrodden actor in Bollywood, because all the young men there are pumping iron in order to look macho in action movies.) Furthermore Boyle decided to do 20% of the film in Hindi, which you might imagine was a great decision and made it feel much more authentic to me, but unfortunately it left audiences in India wondering why these Hindi-speaking street kids grew up to speak perfect English. A dubbed version of the film did better there. I can't say I noticed any of this for myself, but it does seem a bit unfortunate.
The other charges seem flimsier, though. Okay, I'm being polite. To me, they sound like gibberish. Yes, Danny Boyle is from Lancashire and what he's made isn't a true Bollywood film but instead a Western film set in India, like Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. Fair enough. That's what it is. Unfortunately this seems to have led to it getting attacked both for being racist about India's poverty and for not going as far as other, harsher Indian films on the same topic (e.g. Satya, the Apu trilogy). According to someone in San Francisco, it attacks and demonises Indians as "barbarians" and "savages". It's even been accused of exploitation in its use of real slum children as actors, which must be the goofiest criticism of all given that Boyle set up a trust fund for the three lead child actors, who'll get the money when they're 16 and until then will get taken to school every day.
However let's leave all that aside, where it belongs. As a film, it's great. It's pretty good all the way through, then has an ending I loved. (Also don't miss the Bollywood dance sequence at the closing credits.) It's often funny, as in the call-centre scene, and I'd expect the only reason you wouldn't enjoy it would be if you'd gone in expecting epic Oscar-bait. This is not a David Lean film. It's from the director of Trainspotting, but set in India and in the end more heartwarming. That's a pretty good one-line description, I think.