February 18, 2009
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
From "Cinderella" to Charles Dickens, rags-to-riches stories have always had a constant presence in mankind's storytelling, from oral tradition and legends, to literature and film. Whether they are taken from real life or entirely fictional, with a realistic premise or a complete fantastic one, this kind of stories tend to capture the imagination mainly because one can easily feel identified with the struggles the characters find, and because some of this stories can actually be inspiring. Of course, the other side of the coin is that this kind of stories also tend to be overtly melodramatic and sentimentalist to the extreme, exaggerating beyond the acceptable as many schmaltzy films from classic Hollywood can testify. Danny Boyle's film "Slumdog Millionaire" walks the fine line between the two extremes, in the story of a young man from the slums of Mumbai who manages to get to the final question in the Indian version of the popular game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?". And surprisingly, it's actually a fresh take on the classic formula.
In "Slumdog Millionaire", Dev Patel plays Jamal Malik, an uneducated young man whom after growing up in the slums of Mumbai now works as a "chai-wallah", (a boy or young man who serves tea) at a call center. Against all odds, Jamal enters the popular game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and makes it to the final question, meaning that if Jamal answers correctly, he'll win 20 million rupees. However, being a former street child with no education at all makes Jamal an unlikely candidate to know the answers of the show, so before the taping of the last show, he is taken into police custody under, accused of being cheating. Interrogated by Sergeant Srinivas (Saurabh Shukla), Jamal denies the accusation and begins to explain how is it that he was able to answer correctly every question in the show thanks to the experiences of his short life. Telling his life story, Jamal recollects memories from his childhood with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and the orphan girl Latika (Freida Pinto), whom is perhaps the most important person in his life.
Written by British scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy taking as basis the Boeke Prize-winning novel "Q and A" by Indian author Vikas Swarup, "Slumdog Millionaire"'s plot unfolds in a series of flashbacks where the life story of Jamal is told since his childhood days along his brother Salim and his friend Latika, recounting his difficult life in the slums, facing gangsters and other problems in their attempt to make a living. But even when the harsh life of Jamal does take a central part of the film, the real theme of the story is love, as it is the unbreakable love that Jamal has for Latika what drives him and gives him the strength to survive. Simon Beaufoy takes the classic premise of star-crossed lovers and gives it a fresh spin to wave a modern romantic melodrama rich in well developed characters that make the story quite a captivating experience. Because while "Slumdog Millionaire" offers an interesting view on the Indian slums, it is actually a timeless story that could take place in any slum in the world, so it's very easy to feel identified with Jamal and his quest.
With a vibrant, high-octane pace that never gives a minute to rest, director Danny Boyle brings to life Beaufoy's screenplay in a colorful, visually exciting way. With a remarkable work of editing by Chris Dickens and the stylish cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle, Boyle crafts a fascinating movie that perfectly mixes the fantastical with the realistic in a sort of magical realism where the idealistic romance story is framed by the harsh reality of India's slums. Boyle gives an interesting (albeit definitely superficial) view on the lives of Mumbai's street children, showing a bit of the tragedies they face everyday and the few joys they must find to cope with them. While "Slumdog Millionaire" is not exactly a tribute to Bollywood, Boyle does capture, if not exactly the style, at least the highly energetic spirit of joy found in the so-called Masala films (mixes of genres, usually musicals). Also, it's interesting how with the aid of cast director Loveleen Tandan, Boyle decides to have a third of the film in Hindi language, which gives it a realistic touch.
The young cast of mostly newcomers is remarkably effective, with lead actor Dev Patel being the film's greatest surprise. Playing Jamal, Patel offers a very natural performance, albeit in all honesty, at first it's a bit difficult to see him as a former street child. But as the movie progresses the talent of the young actor gets fully appreciated. As his love interest, Latika, Indian model Freida Pinto is also a nice surprise, as she is not only beautiful, but also delivers a good performance as her troubled character. Madhur Mittal plays Jamal's brother Salim, and while good, I must say that his work is overshadowed by the boy who plays his character at a younger age, real street child Azharuddin Ismail, whom is by far the most talented of the younger cast. Ayush Khedekar and Rubiana Ali are the other kids, playing Jamal and Latika respectively, and both are also great in their performances, particularly Ayush, although is Ismail who steals every scene he is in. Anil Kapoor appears as the game show host, and his energetic, charming performance adds a lot of realism to his character.
Overall "Slumdog Millionaire" is a wonder of film that updates those classic feel-good themes of romantic melodrama (almost in that "Capraesque" style of film-making) without getting too schmaltzy about it, and keeping a special focus on the development of the film's "three musketeers". Personally, I found Boyle's decision of giving a realistic outlook to a fantastic story like this one a very interesting, albeit daring one; and while it may seem like an odd mix at first, it actually works. Granted, the whole realism of "Slumdog Millionaire" is still far from being an exact representation of Mumbai's life, after all, it's still an outsider's view on the subject. Also, it certainly can't help but being a bit patronizing about the whole thing, but I think that the approach taken while not entirely realistic, it's a very insightful one despite its flaws. It's safe to say that slums like those depicted in "Slumdog Milionaire" exist in every country, and that street children like Jamal and Latika live in them too. Unfortunately, not every slumdog can become a millionaire.
Fresh, energetic and most of all highly entertaining, "Slumdog Millionaire" seems like a return to Danny Boyle's roots on independent cinema, only on a much greater scale. As written above, "Slumdog Millionaire" is more a modern fable than a realistic view on the life of street children, but despite this, it would be good to believe that movies like this one may give the street children of the world a bit more of attention. It may had been a shallow view on poverty, but it's certainly reaching a great audience. Anyways, while it has been hailed as a masterpiece, "Slumdog Millionaire" may not be the great work of art that claim may lead one to believe, bu it's definitely a terrific film and easily amongst the best movies done in 2008.