Movie Review – Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Mumbai, 2006. Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? A: He Cheated B: He’s Lucky C: He’s a genius D: It is written
Made for a paltry, by Hollywood standards, 15 million dollars, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is the feel good movie of the year that has seemingly come out of nowhere to entice and charm audiences from around the world. Boyle, most noted for his past work on science fiction thrillers 28 Days Later and Sunshine as well as the critically acclaimed Trainspotting staring Ewan McGregor is a surprise candidate for such subject matter but he pulls it off imbuing the movie with a near perfect recipe that is at times biting social commentary, tragic melodrama and gritty realism all enveloped in an age old parable of the powers of love and destiny.
The movie is told mainly in a series of flashbacks showing how a dirt poor Muslim orphan named Jamal Malik survived a tragic laden childhood and managed to eventually end up on India’s version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire where he magically manages to answer questions that should elude a man of his station. His miracle run on the show draws the ire of the game show host who has the police pick him up for suspected cheating. Taken to a local police station he’s severely beaten and even electrocuted by the constables but doesn’t crack professing his innocence by recounting his life story and the events that led him to know the answers to all the show’s questions.
Director Boyle doesn’t shy away from showcasing all stratums of Indian society and as befits his humble upbringing Jamal’s past is riddled with much torment showcasing the sordid underbelly of society. The film has come under some criticism for displaying these less than honourable elements but Boyle and the other filmmakers should not be tarred and feathered for this as what is on display is universal and can happen in any corner of the globe.
That said, Boyle doesn’t pull any punches here from the harrowing mob massacre of a Muslim neighbourhood to the less than heroic gangster who picks up orphans and purposely maims them to work as blind beggars to earn more money this is society at its worst. Boyle makes his point by displaying these acts of depravity and brutal violence that undoubtedly scar Jamal, his brother Salim and Latika, an orphan girl, but serves as the origins of the trios’ friendship. From the beginning Jamal is the most timid, innocent boy who seemingly revels in life itself whereas his brother Salim plays his role as the big brother literally by becoming tough and jaded in order to protect them. However, it is young Latika whom Jamal is enamoured by from the very beginning in one of those “love at first sight” instances that transcends time.
Basically split into three eras, the movie focuses on the trio during their childhood then moves forward to their tween years and eventually finishes as it begins with them in their late teens / early twenties. The one constant throughout the years is Jamal’s undying devotion to Latika and though constantly rend apart he keeps vowing to finding and rescuing his love. Everything and everyone seems arrayed against Jamal’s quest yet he keeps persevering giving the film an enormous David and Goliath ambiance.
All this takes place against the backdrop of modern India, a country much like China that is rising from centuries of slumber to become an economic powerhouse on a path to reclaim their once prominent position in the world. This is a country in the early days of transition and Danny Boyle wastes no frame in displaying the monumental task at hand to raise the country from poverty into an International power. From the sprawling slums and the mountains of garbage that infest both land and water to towering new apartment complexes and shiny Mercedes Benz limousines this is a country that has a huge gap between those who have and those who can only worry about their next meal. While some live in almost excessive luxury the majority of the population rides trains that are so cramped people have to stand outside holding on to dear life or eke out existences in shanty towns that will bring a tear to most people watching the movie.
Still, the film is not called Slumdog Millionaire for nothing. Jamal is merely a gopher who works in a cellular call center yet through his steely will and penchant for truth he rises above his social station to win the hearts of the common man who see his performance on the show as a triumph of spirit and determination – they are living their lives vicariously through him.
Although Boyle showcases grim events not everything is so bone crushingly depressing as the movie contains more than enough wit and humour to lighten key moments and provide a welcome respite from the more dramatic underpinnings such as the scenes centering on how young Jamal and Salim pose as fake tour guides and manage to con and outwit tourists into giving them money.
Boyle manages to encapsulate a wide range of the subcontinent with breathtaking cinematography evoking awe and wonder at the many vistas of the Indian countryside to the gut wrenching ghettos made of rusting husks of corrugated steel and cold hard floors of dirt.
Though much of the credit goes to Boyle it must be said that all the thespians in their roles are utterly convincing and much kudos goes to the child actors playing the major roles who don’t fall into the trap of mugging needlessly for the camera or indulging in blatant attempts to look cute with puppy eyed innocence. These are not your usual roles that require perky children with a penchant for fast wit like Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine or doe-eyed cuteness like Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone. In fact, most of the horrendous side of humanity rears its ugly head while the trio are mere kids and though they still exude their innocence it quickly becomes tainted by adult machinations. The filmmakers have indeed accomplished this feat precisely because they managed to cast these roles from local children who actually live in these poorer areas and it shows in their realistically unsentimental performances.
Still the movie does jar and struggle a bit in its realism when we reach adulthood as our trio of characters are all played by Hollywood / Bollywood actors and actresses that seem a bit too middle class and well off then they should be. That is not to say their performances are unconvincing but watching dishevelled children in ratty clothing turn into fair maidens with perfect complexions replete with supermodel makeup is a bit hard to take. However, that is a minor concern especially since the movie focuses entirely on Jamal played by British actor Dev Patel who nails the character’s resolve and innocence in an understated performance that is sure to illicit much empathy from the audience. Here is a young man who has literally gone through hell and unlike his brother who embraces violence as a means to an end has managed to keep his wits and core beliefs intact no matter the costs.
What would a Bollywood movie be without its music? Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t make the mistake of hiring a Hollywood composer, although that might have worked but instead went and got celebrated Indian composer A.R.Rahman to pen the score and he hits it out of the park. From the beginning notes of “O….Saya” that turns quickly into frentic drums laced with haunting chorals and electric guitar riffs to the sombre yet romantic tune of “Latika’s Theme” the score manages to find incredible synergy with what is happening on screen right up to the requisite “Jai Ho” number that accompanies the massive dance sequence that completes the movie. Those who hate musicals and dancing shouldn’t worry as the number in question is there just for fun as an ode to one of Bollywood ‘s greatest assets and not part of the narrative. Then again, those who are well versed in Bollywood musicals will probably think that the one ending Slumdog Millionaire is merely average as it doesn’t really contain much dancing and features many cuts that seem to hide the fact that no one is really dancing in sequence.
Still, by the time the musical sequence begins it doesn’t really matter if Dev Patel can dance as the story has reached its emotional climax in a rousing sequence that brings the movie full circle from the opening question posited to the audience. When everything is said and done and through all the gut wrenching heartache and sacrifice, by the time Jamal gets to the final question we know intrinsically how it is going to end. This is not because the film does a bad job in masking its intent but precisely the opposite. It provides all the evidence that plays out before us that leads Jamal to his final answer. After all, it is written.
I have been going to movies for more than three decades now and the best feeling one can obtain comes when the cinema lights flash back on as the end credits roll. Although it is a personal feeling it is undoubtedly enhanced and given physical manifestation by the surrounding audience through the simple act of clapping. I’ve been in some movies where you could cut the air of disappointment with a single sheet of paper (here’s looking at you Alien 3) as you watch the audience slowly trudge and shuffle their way out the doors as if they were on their way to a funeral. Yet, you live for the moments like you get in those magical movies where just about everyone bursts out into spontaneous emotion clapping with joy from the heart as tears spew down cheeks. Slumdog Millionaire is one of those rare instances that I’ve noticed this which speaks volumes in its ability to touch a resonate chord in all who watch it.
Danny Boyle has created one of the most enthralling, gently touching, distressing and altogether gripping motion pictures of the past few years and it is one that would be criminal to miss.
**** out of ****
2008, UK/USA, 120 min, Fox Searchlight Pictures, R
Directed by Danny Boyle
Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy
Based on a book by Vikas Swarup
Producer: Christian Colson
Executive Producer: Tessa Ross, Paul Smith
Original Music by A.R. Rahman
Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle
Film Editing by Chris Dickens
Jamal Malik: Dev Patel
Prem Kumar: Anil Kapoor
Older Salim: Madhur Mittal
Sergeant Srinivas: Saurabh Shukla
Director: Rajendranath Zutshi
Vision Mixer: Jeneva Talwar
Latika: Freida Pinto
Police Inspector: Irrfan Khan
Youngest Salim: Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail
Youngest Jamal: Ayush Mahesh Khedekar
Amitabh Bachchan: Feroz Abbas Khan
Youngest Latika: Rubiana Ali
Middle Jamal: Tanay Hemant Chheda
Middle Salim: Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala
Middle Latika: Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar
© 2009 The Galactic Pillow