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15 years of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’: The Academy Award-winning film has aged poorly

Danny Boyle’s 2008 drama film set in India raised eyebrows when the Academy decided to award top honours

Ryan Gomez
Nov 14, 2023
15 years of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’: The Academy Award-winning film has aged poorly

British filmmaker Danny Boyle has helmed several critically-acclaimed films over the years such as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and 127 Hours. He is also credited with under-appreciated classics such as Sunshine and The Beach. But the film that earned him his only Oscar for Best Director is the 2008 drama Slumdog Millionaire. The film won an incredible eight Oscars including Best Film, propelling it to a global phenomenon. Any film that wins eight Academy Awards should be revered in the same regard as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. However, 15 years later, Slumdog Millionaire continues to divide opinion.

There has also been much discourse about whether one can objectively judge an art form. While it is widely acknowledged that art is subjective, 18th-century scholar Immanuel Kant wrote extensively on the subject and argued that a joint consensus by critics over time provides a fairly accurate and objective analysis of art. In other words, if an art form can withstand the test of time and continues to be widely appreciated, it is very close to being objectively good or even great. The most obvious example would be Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian sci-fi classic Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford. At the time of its release, the film was panned by critics, with the consensus that the poor reception was due to the studio-mandated cuts in the theatrical version. However, after Scott released his definitive version of the film, it began garnering significant praise, and 40 years later, it is still widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time.

In the case of Slumdog Millionaire, the film has almost been erased from pop culture. One could argue that several other films over the years have trounced Boyle’s magnum opus. Most notably, Christopher Nolan’s 2008 hit The Dark Knight is now widely regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Apart from the late Heath Ledger winning an Oscar for his outstanding performances as the Joker, The Dark Knight failed to win over the Academy. In fact, the DC film did not meet the expectations of the Academy to even muster a nomination for Best Picture. In hindsight, it might be one of the worst decisions by the Academy, which has already been accused of poor judgment on numerous occasions over the years. So, following the aforementioned Immanuel Kant and other scholars such as David Hume, is Slumdog Millionaire objectively the best film of 2008? The answer is a resounding no.

Even at the time of its release, Slumdog Millionaire was scrutinised by a section of Indians for its glorification of poverty in India. While a nuanced take on the lives of the impoverished and destitute who reside in the slums of Mumbai could certainly make for a compelling film, it is the film’s inability to consistently remain grounded in realism that results in a version that's not too different from a masala Bollywood flick. The third act of the film where a young man with no formal education ends up on a TV program similar to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or Kaun Banega Crorepati, after working in a call centre for several months, would require a lot to substantiate the outlandish narrative. How did a man, who couldn’t afford basic education, swing a job with a call centre? Also, to toss a call centre into a story set in India is little more than lazily resorting to stereotypes. But when this man manages to draw from all his life experiences to crack every question that’s lobbed at him, the story just seems a bit too convenient if not entirely implausible. So when the film falls apart in the second half, it almost seems like it was engineered to do so.

So how did Slumdog Millionaire sweep home a total of eight Oscars when one of the greatest films of all time did not even receive a nomination for Best Picture or Best Director? One can only make an educated guess that Hollywood decided it was the right time to be more inclusive and appreciate stories set outside the confines of the Western world. How can one forget the infamous jeering by the ‘Hollywood elites’ when aspiring actress Sacheen Littlefeather took to the stage at the awards ceremony in 1973 and served as Marlon Brando’s proxy to reject his award? In an attempt to shed its discriminatory image, Hollywood appears to have resorted to tokenism. Slumdog Millionaire’s Oscars sweep in 2009 may have been one of the first high-profile instances of Hollywood using inclusivity as a tool to erase years of systematic discrimination and racism.

It is also worth noting that not even Hans Zimmer's moving score for The Dark Knight failed to make the cut, while A R Rahman took home the Oscar. Rahman certainly deserves global recognition, but his work in Slumdog Millionaire is hardly his best. Lead stars of Slumdog Millionaire, Dev Patel and Freida Pinto have gone on to carve very different paths in their respective careers. British actor, Patel, has garnered plaudits for his performances in films such as Lion, The Man Who Knew Infinity, and more recently in The Green Knight, which is widely regarded as his best work. Whereas Mumbai-born Pinto has found moderate success in American and British productions across multiple genres, with the 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes being one of her few high-profile films.

It shouldn’t be too surprising that the Telugu blockbuster RRR received much attention at the last Oscars. The S S Rajamouli film is hardly what cinema purists would consider ‘Oscar-worthy’. It is a brash ‘mass entertainer’ masala film with larger-than-life characters and over-the-top set pieces. But Hollywood positioning it as India’s crowning glory in filmmaking is a disservice to some of the outstanding Indian films that have released in recent years. The two films that are strongly associated with India across the globe are unfortunately Danny Boyle’s relatively mediocre film and the Bahubali director’s unapologetically exaggerated pre-independence period drama. Regional films such as Gargi, Aavasavyuham, and Nna Thaan Case Kodu deserve to be put on a much higher pedestal than RRR, which could even be called an Indian equivalent of the Fast and Furious films – pure formula and little else.

Slumdog Millionaire is certainly not similar to RRR in any frame of comparison but it will certainly remain as one of the most controversial Best Picture wins in Oscar history. But analysing the film through a contemporary lens reveals a few glaring flaws. The most obvious one is that the film’s tone fails to capture the essence of its setting and time period, instead, it mimics Indian films released during the 2000s. It is also guilty of leaning on stereotypes to depict the lives of the less privileged in India. For the sake of comparison, one can turn to the Apple TV+ series Shantaram which offers a more poignant and realistic take on those residing in the slums of Mumbai, without attempting to exaggerate or seek pity for the less fortunate. Slumdog Millionaire, being a cultural phenomenon at the time, may have reaffirmed several stereotypes about Mumbai and India to the global audience, and 15 years later, the film’s frailties seem evidently more profound. For instance, Frieda Pinto’s character was depicted as the quintessential ‘damsel in distress’, an archetype that is severely outdated. While Danny Boyle’s lack of understanding of the subject is forgivable to a certain degree, his unusually flat storytelling in the film, riddled with plot holes, is inexcusable. It appears Slumdog Millionaire will continue to divide opinion for years to come.