Over the weekend I watched Slumdog Millionaire, English director Danny Boyle’s movie about a poor boy in Mumbai who wins millions on a game show but who is accused of cheating. The movie was the darling of 2009, garnering a boatload of awards, including nine Oscars, five Critics’ Choice, four Golden Globes and seven awards from the British Academy Film Awards. I liked Slumdog Millionaire. It isn’t Danny Boyle’s best work, but it may be his most ambitious. Nor is it the best movie for demonstrating child poverty in Mumbai. A better one is the heart-rending work from 1988 Salaam Bombay.
Danny Boyle creates atmosphere well. Slumdog’s gritty scenes of poverty and desperation reminded of his earlier and perhaps best film, Trainspotting, which follows the gritty, heroin-laced lives of five disaffected boys in Edinburgh.
I also couldn’t help but be reminded of Charles Dickens. I’ve been enjoying Masterpiece Theatre presentations of Dickens’ works over these last few months — David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit, and The Old Curiosity Shop. Slumdog Millionaire is a story that Dickens could have written. The brother Salim in Slumdog Millionaire is a chip off the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist. Both lead gangs of child criminals, both answer to dangerous men who manipulate and motivate the boys through their desire for material possessions.
Charles Dickens’ books offered strong commentary on social class and cast light on the awful state of child poverty. His books ultimately caused the enactment of child labor laws. While Slumdog Millionaire is a story that Dickens might have enjoyed, I also think it is one that would have made him sad and frustrated to see the plight of children in today’s world.