Hindsight's a wonderful thing. Especially in the movie business. And the inclusion of Slumdog Millionaire in this series looking at successful British films over the last couple of years is probably the most straightforward there will ever be. Made for $15 million, taking over $377 million at the box office and winning a whopping eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, makes it one of the most successful British films of all times. And despite being set in India, it most certainly is a British film. A British director, a British writer, a British leading man, and two British production companies ensure that. But when looked at objectively, this is also probably one of the most unlikeliest successes in British film industry history. In fact, the lack of confidence in the movie led to Warner Bros, the film's distributor, suggesting it go straight to DVD. It was only after Fox Searchlight bought 50% of Warner's interest and handled the US distribution that a cinema release was guaranteed. And goodness knows how much that cost Warner Bros. But in theory, you can understand their concerns.
The film has no discernible stars (although has now of course made Dev Patel one,) it's set in India, it has a non linear narrative, and - drum beat please - it has subtitles!! These are not readily identifiable ingredients for a box office smash. On the surface, it's this sort of thing that lends enormous weight to Goldman's famous "no one knows anything." But can we take a closer look at the marketing and the story to see how and why it resonated with such a large audience, and across so many countries.
Firstly, people who market movies are generally pretty smart. Sometimes even smarter than those who make them! And they took advantage of everything they could. They had a massively recognisable game show tie in with Who Wants to be a Millionaire to hook people. They created a big, happy, smiley poster, with "from the director of Trainspotting and the writer of The Full Monty" in big, bold letters. So immediately Slumdog has pedigree. Fans of those hugely successful films might give this a go. And the key buzz word all over the posters and TV ads was "feel good." It made no mention on whether the movie was a comedy, a drama, a thriller, a horror - all the usual genre choices used to sell a film - but instead the focus was clearly on the fact that this was a feel good movie. And in a time of recession and global economic meltdown, who doesn't want to see a movie about a poor kid trying to become a millionaire that is guaranteed to make you feel good? But many felt afterwards that this had been a bit misleading. That the dark content of sections of the story meant that it couldn't, and shouldn't, have been described as feel good. However whatever your feelings (and mine is that feel good is defined by the ending, and how you feel when coming out of the cinema, which was surely good) what is beyond dispute is that this description helped sell the film and put bums on seats.
However that trick, as it were, can only work to a certain extent. If the movie ultimately sucks, then the reviews and word of mouth will kill it anyway. But the movie delivered and it did so using another kind of trick. If I described a movie to you as boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, what would you think it is? Surely, a romantic comedy - the genre with possibly the best longevity and most consistent success rate. And is that not the story of Slumdog Millionaire? Overlaying the seemingly complex flashback structure is a far more simple story of Jamal meets Latika, loses her, and finds her again - repeated three times reflecting the growing ages of the actors involved. The active question of any romantic comedy is will the boy and girl end up together, and how will they do so? So to with Slumdog. The active question of the story is not whether Jamal will become a millionaire or not. It's will he be able to be together with Latika and how will he overcome the odds to achieve this. The game show is just the method he uses to achieve this. He even says himself that he went on it because he knew she watched the show. He has no interest in money and I would suggest the film would've worked equally as well had he fluffed the final question, but still met her at the train station.
But no one knew they were watching a romantic comedy. But it's not a comedy I hear you say! This is true. It's tone is dramatic. Everything gained comes at a cost. It's win-lose the whole way through. This is exemplified by the win ending, which is only made possible by Jamal's brother's loss and sacrifice. But the structure is definitely that of a romantic comedy. And I think Slumdog Millionaire is a brilliant example of how superficially unattractive film projects can work, both commercially and critically, and that British filmmakers need not necessarily stick to these shores when looking for stories to tell.