Who wants to be a (slumdog) millionaire?

Can the game show «Who Wants to Be a Millionaire» be the structure in which to tell a story about squalor and poverty in contemporary India? Winning big at the Oscars, the film «Slumdog Millionaire» is based on the novel «Q&A» by Indian author Vikas Swarup and was directed by Danny Boyle («Trainspotting,» «28 Days Later»). It’s a loud, festive fairy tale told via flashbacks: In contemporary Mumbai, a so called «tea wallah,» Jamal (the adult Jamal is played by Dev Patel, while Tanay Hemant and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar play him as a teen and child respectively), is brought in for police questioning when he achieves the impossible and is about to win the Indian version of «Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.» Each multiple-choice question is the impetus for a flashback to his childhood in the slums, as young Jamal improvises ways to survive, along with his tougher older brother Salim (played by Madhur Mittal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail). For a period of time, the duo are joined by a so-called «third musketeer,» fellow-orphan Latika (Frieda Pinto, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar and Rubina Ali), and Jamal never stops loving and looking for her after they part ways. Criticism of the film has come from two directions: The first, mainly from India, is that the film paints an overly negative picture of India as a dirty, slum-ridden country of poverty and child snatchers. The second criticism is of its implausible story line, dotted throughout with magnificent coincidences and miracles. Critics criticize what the «Millionaire» host (Anil Kapoor) also finds irking: An uneducated orphan is succeeding where much more educated and privileged guests have failed. But is there anything wrong with making a fairy tale for adults? Maybe it’s just the visual comfort food needed in these tough economic times. Money, after all, is the grown-up equivalent of a glass slipper or a house made of candy, and the global success of «Who Wants to Be a Millionaire» banks on that truth. Like any fairy tale, both the good and bad are stretched and exaggerated for dramatic effect, while the pieces of the tale fit together like a well-made puzzle. As crowds gather outside stores selling electronics and huddle amid mounds of garbage in front on old television screens to watch Jamal become a popular hero, the gap between dreams and reality becomes all too clear. «Who Wants to Be a Millionaire» is, after all, nothing but a steely, televised incarnation of the fairy godmother, albeit one who bestows her gifts upon very few. Yet just because life is infinitely more intricate than the «A,» «B,» «C» or «D» questions put forth on the game show doesn’t mean viewers of the television show – and Boyle’s film – can’t sit back, watch and dream.

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