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Diminishing returns

A poignant story of life in Mumbai gets undermined by corporate money

<strong>Slumdog Millionaire

If there is one director you would hope could be relied upon for an indictment of capitalism when we need it most, it's Danny Boyle. A distrust of money pervades Boyle's work, from his gruesome 1994 debut Shallow Grave, about the trouble that arises from the discovery of ill-gotten swag, to his recent children's adventure Millions, about the trouble that arises from . . . well, you get the idea. This scepticism might have persisted in Slumdog Millionaire if the film were not compromised by its endorsement of a brand that promotes a starkly opposing view.

As the picture begins, 18-year-old Jamal (the sullenly handsome newcomer Dev Patel) is poised to win a jackpot of 20 million rupees on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But, in a break before the climactic round, Jamal is bundled off to be grilled by the inspector of police (Irrfan Khan), who is convinced this uneducated boy must have cheated. The scenes of Jamal being tortured at the police station are disturbing, not least because they made me wonder if this was the sort of treatment dished out to that nice Judith Keppel, the first contestant to scoop £1m on the UK version. (Or maybe the programme-makers considered the hours she spent in the company of Chris Tarrant to have represented torture enough.)

Slumdog Millionaire uses the questions that Jamal miraculously answers on the show to piece together his life story. How does he know the identity of a particular 1970s Bollywood superstar? How did he remember the composer of a forgotten Hindi ballad? And how could so impoverished a boy know that it is Benjamin Franklin's face that adorns a $100 bill? As the explanatory anecdotes accumulate, we follow Jamal as a child through his spell with a gang of thieves and beggars on the streets of Mumbai and into adolescence, where he diverges, in the time-honoured tradition of The Public Enemy, from his reprobate brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal).

Simon Beaufoy's fragmented screenplay is mirrored in the film's aesthetic: the magpie-eyed camera gazes down at Mumbai's makeshift rooftops, which form a corrugated-iron jigsaw puzzle, and delights in the immense and gaily coloured patchwork of scarves and saris spread out to dry on the riverbank. The film is always on the hoof, partly to offset the game-show face-off to which it keeps returning, and partly, perhaps, to trump the opening chase in Boyle's Trainspotting. (It certainly goes one better, or rather one smellier, than that earlier film's toilet-bound fantasy sequence: here a child leaps into a pit of gloopy sewage and staggers out like some B-movie creature from the brown lagoon.)

But there are so many frantic pursuits through heaving streets that it is easy to lose track of who is chasing whom, or why. Energy and urgency are substituted for realism: despite the colossal dunes of refuse through which dogs and oxen plod morosely, and the extravagant nastiness of the Fagin-esque gang leader, poverty is used here to appeal to the heartstrings, in the style of Angela's Ashes, rather than as part of a sociological report in the Pixote/Los Olvidados mould.

No film that is as contaminated by corporate branding as Slumdog Millionaire is would have much claim on grittiness anyway. During a potentially touching reunion between Jamal and his sweetheart, Latika (Freida Pinto), a TV set is annoyingly incorporated in the frame. And guess what's showing on it? Here's a clue: it isn't Going for Gold. When young Latika actually has to defend the appeal of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? ("It's a chance to escape, isn't it? To walk into another life"), you ache for her as she lavishes precious emotion on dialogue that might as well be flogging bathroom cleaner.

Shane Meadows's Eurostar-commissioned Somers Town last year showed how a decent film-maker can be tainted by association with sponsorship. Now the point is rammed needlessly home by Slumdog Millionaire - co-produced, coincidentally, by Celador Films, one arm of the company that until two years ago owned the Millionaire format. A plucky cast and busy soundtrack lend the picture some zing, and it would be hard to deny the poignancy of the unscarred Mumbai locations. The remainder only goes to show the trouble that can arise whenever ill-gotten swag enters the equation.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza