No matter what your opinion of the film itself and its unlikely climb to Oscar glory, Slumdog Millionaire is an underdog story that uniquely mirrors that of the film’s protagonists. Sure, Danny Boyle is an established director with Hollywood successes (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions) and even a few Hollywood disappointments (Sunshine) — but this is still a film with zero Hollywood names. This isn’t Tom Cruise in a tanning bed sporting a fake Hindi accent. Yes, there’s a few Bollywood greats at work, but they aren’t the leads, and the reaction from the mother country hasn’t even been all that enthusiastic. This is instead a small film that broke with the mainstream mandate and punched through the established system to become “big.” Like its Mumbai teen hero, this is a no-name street rat scratching its way out of the gutter to fame and fortune.
And while the Academy embraces and makes it its own, Slumdog should be a breath of fresh air to the independent mindset. Those who’ve heard over and over that familiar refrain: you need a “name” to ever have a chance at penetrating the commercial market. Independents who’d love the option of banking on quality actors without popular acclaim can only look at Slumdog as an encouraging model. The little film that could… and did. No guarantees, of course, as Slumdog entered its festival circuit as any true indie does — without a home, an orphan, wayward and lonely. Full of promise, but with unknown chances at recoupment. Indeed, unknown chances of even being seen outside the festival circuit. Even award-winning festival movies often never break further than an IFC cable run and a slim chance at earning back their shooting costs. Without a profoundly obvious commercial hook, or a highly bankable star, the distribution process is a dicey investment at best. Yet Slumdog proves once again that it can be done.
So the question becomes: Can indie film really climb out of the slums and find its Millionaires?
It seems to happen enough to merit hope. I think Slumdog was an amazing concept for a film, even though it had quite a few serious characterization holes. A movie doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to clearly not be a knock off.