Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
If there is one independent movie that seems to be picking up momentum this awards season, it’s Slumdog Millionaire. The film seems destined to break out into the mainstream, especially in a time where audiences could use a happy story given the ongoing news of economic downturns. Slumdog Millionaire is a highly spirited rags-to-riches tale that marries Hollywood and Bollywood into one fantastic product.
Jamal (Dev Patel) is an 18-year-old kid who grew up impoverished in India’s favellas. He’s also on the verge of winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Game show. The TV host reminds Jamal that lawyers and doctors have never gotten as far as he, a lowly “slumdog” from such humble origins. As each question emerges we discover more about Jamal’s life, from escaping a riot, touring India as a stowaway on a train, conning American tourists at the Taj Mahal, to his assistant work at a call center. Throughout Jamal’s life are two constants: Salim (Madhur Mittal) and Latika (Frieda Pinto). Salim is Jamal’s scheming older brother who has a loose sense of morals. He finds a life of crime as a suitable escape from poverty. Latika is a young orphan girl that Jamal befriended as a child. He declared that she was the “third Musketeer” in their group and has always sworn to love her. This is complicated because Salim’s crime boss wants Latika for a prize, and Salim keeps his younger brother away from Latika. Ultimately, as an entire nation watches with baited breath, Jamal explains that he is appearing on TV because he knew that Latika, his love, would be watching somewhere.
It’s like City of God and Forrest Gump had a baby that was raised by Oliver Twist. The film is given a dynamic energy thanks to director Danny Boyle’s exuberant camerawork and skillful style. Boyle is a director that knows how to make images jump and Slumdog feels like it is coursing with life. The feel-good fantasy nature of the rags-to-riches plot is offset by some pretty harrowing violence, and Boyle makes great pains to show the realities of living in squalor. At one point a very Fagin-esque local crime lord collects young orphans to be beggars and he has a foolproof scenario to make these kids sympathetic and thus big earners — he blinds them with hot liquid. Despite the fantastical elements, Slumdog is rated R for a reason and that’s because it does show the cruel reality of a life in the slums, granted it’s nowhere near as bleak and formidable as something like City of God. After all, the kid gets to win on a game show, though the movie does open with Jamal being tortured by the police. Boyle has a tremendously natural eye for crafting visuals that delight the senses; he can make his shot compositions feel interesting without ever truly calling attention to being flashy. The views of India are beautiful and fascinating. Plus, having a majority of the movie in a foreign dialect was appreciated (Boyle provides different color background for different character’s subtitles, a nice touch). There’s a magic feeling to the film that definitely takes hold of the audience, an uplift that channels smiles and gasps of joy. While I’ll still credit Millions as Boyle’s best film since Trainspotting, his work on Slumdog is deserving of praise. I don’t know if another director could have made a film with so many contradictory elements (feel-good flick with child prostitutes?) run so smoothly.
The movie is also given a brilliant story structure by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty). The movie is built around a steady stream of flashbacks linked to the questions Jamal tackles on the game show. So the host will pose a question and then we’ll be treated to a 10-15-minute flashback to Jamal’s life to discover how he knows the answer. The approach is fresh and it reinforces the magical notion that Jamal’s life has all been leading up to this moment of glory. Beaufoy’s script smartly weaves many storylines together to give us an emerging sense of who Jamal truly is. He manages to write an uplifting and hopeful tale that stays clear from easy sentiment. Indeed, Slumdog is an accomplished feat of writing as well as direction. Working from the Indian novel Q&A, Beaufoy has written a modern-day fairy tale in the same fashion as the Brothers Grimm, which means he didn’t skimp on the unpleasantness and hardship. Yet Slumdog is able to find great human spirit amidst the squalor. I doubt I’ll see a climax more rousing and crowd-pleasing all year. Seriously, you’d have to have a pretty hard heart not to feel some excitement and jubilation in the closing moments.
This unlikely fantasy is aided by sharp performances by a collection of actors. Jamal is an unassuming yet plucky underdog, and Patel nicely handles these elements. He’s a stringy kid but he carries himself with charm and fortitude. As he grows confident he spars with the combative TV host, and it’s fun to watch. Pinto is a swell looking beauty with a great smile but I wish the story had given her more to do as an actress. The young actors who play Jamal, Salim, and Latika as young children actually give the best performances.
And now after all my effusive talk comes the time where I must voice my minor reservations. First off, the structure is ingenious but having Jamal interrogated by the police after the fact seems unnecessary, plus it also tips off the audience from the beginning that this kid has already won it all, which sucks some of the tension out of the game show format. I really think the movie would have been better served just playing out the game show in real time instead. Also, it’s a bit too convenient that every one of the quiz questions triggers a memory in a linear fashion. Jamal can tell his life’s story from beginning to end, but the movie would have been more challenging and interesting if the quiz questions forced Jamal to bounce around in his own memory. That way the script would provide more mysteries that could lead to even more satisfying answers. The Millionaire game show also goes on a commercial break and Jamal is astoundingly allowed to leave and go to the bathroom after he knows one of the high-money questions. In the age of wireless Internet, no game show would ever allow the contestant to leave its sight. Finally, the movie is presented like a Dickensian fable told in chunks, which means I found it hard to fully embrace the central romance that drives Jamal. I will readily follow the romantic notion of locating your true love, however, I will feel more involved in that search if the combined time Jamal and Latika spent together was longer then like a week. Seriously, they see each other every few years for a moment and then are broken apart, only to find each other again for a few moments to be broken apart. She’s more a symbol than a fully translated character, though this did not stop me from rooting for a happy ending.
Slumdog Millionaire is a thrilling, funny, and triumphant story that courses with lively electricity, thanks to the deft direction of Danny Boyle. This movie is enormously entertaining while still baring a social conscious about the plight of those impoverished, though I hope people don’t get the mistaken idea that all that character-building impoverished life styles will lead to future fortunes like Jamal. The movie is hopeful and uplifting while also balancing tense violence and improbable circumstances. While I’m not on board with the critics calling this the best film of 2008, it has some minor flaws in approach to storytelling and character, Slumdog Millionaire has all the right markings to be a crowd-pleasing sensation. After all, it is destiny. And that’s my final answer.
Nate’s Grade: A-