Ultimately, Slumdog Millionaire is a depressing movie. The movie took too much pains to remind us that in the end of it all, the whole story is a fantasy, while juxtaposing that fantasy against the grim reality of Third World poverty and moral corruption.
The element of fantasy and escapism is evident in the entire movie, which is something of a cross between Oliver Twist and the Ramayana — Jamal himself is a character we can only dream of; a man untainted by the sin of the world even as he is part of the very harshest of the world, and who is far too honest for his own good despite proving that he steals and lies to get by. But when Latika tells the curious Jamal the reason why people are transfixed on the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? she is really telling the audience that they, like the many people tuning in to watch the game show, are watching an escapist fantasy.
That the cinema is the escapist fantasy of the poor in India is an old concept, well familiar to anyone familiar with the three-hour movies of Bollywood — a film genre that combines ancient Indian storytelling with the silver screen, complete with highly lyrical songs about love and loss — but Bollywood films have always successfully shielded the immense sense of poverty in India (Tamil movies, on the other hand, generally do not do so). Slumdog Millionaire, on the other hand, juxtaposes the fantasy of a naive, untainted hero who finds himself in a rags-to-rajah destiny with the harsh reality of slum children in India (and later, the underworld that they find themselves in). The movie uncomfortably jostles between the extent of that reality and the mythic quality of Jamal’s story, and at the end of the movie, this conflict is unresolved.
Yes, Jamal gets his millions, and Jamal gets the girl. But what else is for them in the future? Can Jamal wisely invest those millions in something that can sustain Latika and himself? Will he not be a walking target for villains and thugs, some of whom he has made enemies with? And will that same underworld that has kept Latika for so long surrender her so easily? His brother Salim, the only person who might be able to offer protection from the underworld, having been part of it himself, is dead.
The movie does not resolve these questions. Instead, it ends with a tribute to Bollywood culture — in a song and dance routine — telling us that in spite of all things, and in spite of the likelihood that Jamal and Latika will never escape the reality of life that clutches them, they will have a happily-ever-after ending, simply because this is the movies, and if the movies cannot provide escapism for us — no matter how improbable and impossible the situation is — then what is the movies anyway?
Well, the movies are not reality. Slumdog Millionaire may well turn out to be a masterpiece in cinematic storytelling, but as for whatever hope, or awareness, that it might provoke, the movie is bleak.