‘Slumdog Millionaire’ a winner
December 22, 2008
“Slumdog Millionaire” is not the cure for all the world’s ills, but it comes close. It solves, for instance, such endemic global problems as: a) sadness, b) lovelessness, c) cynicism, and d) the waning cultural relevance of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Somehow, through the boldest miracles of filmmaking, it conveys humor and sheer romantic jubilance side-by-side with death and deprivation.
This isn’t a film for the faint of heart or spirit. It’s ebullient on the one hand, bloody on the other. It’s idealistic as a tribute to the power of love, but it’s unsparing as a portrait of Mumbai’s class system, criminal underground and slums. It is a beautiful, blithe rags-to-riches fairy-tale about a teenage nobody’s appearance on an Indian game show, and yet it features seedy mise-en-scenes with a Dickensian subplot and its own sadistic Fagan.
The results have unbelievable verve. British filmmaker Danny Boyle, working in India with co-director Loveleen Tandan, brings such polyglot wit, spunk and passion to the screen that every scene feels like a blast in the face. Most other movies look wan and dull by comparison; “Slumdog Millionaire” seems twice as alive. What’s most astonishing about it is the way it exploits the mushiest cliches: The hero implores his sweetheart to escape with him and live “on love,” and all we can do is shiver.
Boyle launched his feature career with such energetic, scabrously observed movies as “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting,” later veering toward speculative genre twists in “28 Days Later and Sunshine.” But lest we forget, he’s also the man behind Millions, a fable about a boy who found money, gave it away and chatted with saints.
Written by Simon Beaufoy from the novel by Vikas Swarup, “Slumdog” depicts no visitations from the dead. But its protagonist is another steadfast believer ” in love, if not in God ” and the story once again pivots on the lure of sudden cash. Right from the beginning, we learn that Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an uneducated tea server (or “chai wallah”) at a Mumbai cell phone company, is one mere multiple-choice question away from earning 20 million rupees. We also learn that Jamal has been detained by police on suspicion of cheating ” only because he’s a kid from the slums, and kids from the slums don’t get that far on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” In the words of an outraged cop, “What the hell can a slum dog possibly know?”
They plunge his head in water; they hang him from his wrists; they wire his toes and electrocute him; but the police can’t secure a confession. He’s winning, Jamal explains, because he knew the answers. To prove it, he talks them through a videotape of the show just aired.
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Structurally, the movie ricochets from interrogation to “Millionaire” to scenes from his rambling, hard-knock life. We follow Jamal (played, through most of his boyhood, by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and his brother Salim (at the start Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, at the end Madhur Mittal) from their mother’s death in a religious riot through their years spent bumming and scamming to survive. We meet the lovely Latika (at the start Rubiana Ali, at the end Freida Pinto) and the ruthless Maman (Ankur Vikal), who rounds up orphans and transforms them, or deforms them, into beggars.
At each stage Jamal learns some new piece of trivia ” a song, a bit of history, or the pose of a Hindu statue ” that later provides an answer to a question posed by the show’s buttery host (Anil Kapoor). This, we realize, is his education: the slums themselves.
Devotees will note a scene to rival the toilet-diving fantasy in “Trainspotting.” But everyone, not just fans of Boyle or Bollywood, should get a kick from this contagious love-letter to the city of Mumbai. No one could watch without a thought to the recent attacks there, especially as the cast shimmies through a buoyant end sequence at Victoria Terminus train station.
Yet even that tragic shadow can’t lessen the joy of “Slumdog Millionaire,” because the movie doesn’t spare us the agonies of loss. Jamal simply lives, and loves, in spite of them.