Slumdog Millionaire

Jamal Twist

         
 

12 November 2008| No Comments     by Sean Chavel

 

Ultimately fantastic once you become accustomed to the rough stuff. Impoverished life in Mumbai, India is dog eat dog. According to social anthropology it is the most populous metropolitan city in the world with thirteen million people, where poverty is so pervasive that a recorded 54% of people live in shantytowns. Survival depends on bartering, stealing and sometimes murder of another. In such an oppressive environment is it possible for an inspirational life to blossom? Director Danny Boyle has taken some potentially grim and mirthless material and has triumphantly directed it like a rip-roaring action movie spurred with lightening pacing as it traces one remarkable boy with an unbreakable determination. Slumdog Millionaire isn’t really an action movie but it has the drive and ferocity of the best of them. It is a triumph in larger-than-life storytelling and a rousing adventure of not necessarily the body but of the spirit.

The deck is stacked high against its hero Jamal whom we see orphaned since childhood following the brutal death of his mother. Exploited by would-be guardians whose occupation is in human trafficking, he is left adrift as a street urchin forced to survive on his own often through means of petty theft and scams on flushed WASP tourists. Jamal is a survivalist conditioned to watch his own back, but has outreach of love for one person. Latika is the girl whom he rescues early and continually through the years tries to rescue again. By the time Latika is a mistress and possession of a brutal gangster by her late teens, she has resigned to her fate. But Jamal never gives up on her.

Jamal and Latika are played by various actors and actresses, but the older versions of them are played by Dev Patel and Freida Pinto. Patel and Pinto play their characters at the end of childhood and at the dawn of not only adulthood, but at the threshold of desperation. Jamal has the faith that there is always a last chance to improve their lives.

From the start, “Slumdog Millionaire” uses a flashback structure of Jamel appearing on India’s game show version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Yes, it’s the same show as seen in America with the three lifelines.

Appearing on the game show is more of an opportunity for Jamal to get Latika’s attention (it’s her favorite show as it is most of the people of India’s favorite show) than it is to win money. The questions are reasonably tough and ascending in difficulty, but the film jumps back in time to show how Jamal’s street smart education enabled him to answer all the daunting questions. Will he go all the way to the top?

Due to Jamal’s insolvent background and lack of formal education, authorities believe he is somehow cheating and he is inexorably interrogated in-between the taping just a couple of questions away from taking the ultimate prize. We are uncertain if Jamal will be allowed to return to the show, but India cheers on. We get a suspenseful game show drama that is equal to all the parallel dramas. One includes Jamal’s brother who becomes a drug runner and habitual backstabber.

All plot description aside, I feel compelled to mention that at about the three-quarter mark a scene takes place that I’ll never forget. I’ve rarely been thrown so off-guard, and outsmarted, by a protagonist who makes a shrewder and better “street smart” decision than I would have made. My heart leapt enormously during those moments, it took several minutes for my emotions to get grounded again. (SPOILER ALERT), let’s just say that Jamal’s gut instincts are smart enough to dodge the offerings of a false Samaritan. Must be that Jamal’s lifetime of wariness and vigilance influenced a sound decision.

Without a doubt you get a look at the lower depths of poverty, the eruption of urban violence, the wastes of young life. It doesn’t dwell on misery, it only starts there, as the film inspirationally builds upon the self-actualization and triumph of its hero whom we want to see with all the desire in our hearts want to succeed. The film is like the blaze and bloodshed of “City of God” crossed with the underdog uplift of the “Rocky” formula. And Pinto is simply luminous as the virtuous beauty who deserves good treatment and sentiment. A little Bollywood is also thrown in byway of a surprisingly flamboyant but aptly timed musical sequence.

The film is partially in Hindi with English subtitles, but the subtitles are terse – director Boyle knowingly opts for a purely visual story that depends on less frequent dialogue. Game show episodes and generally the second half is more dialogue-dependent and is done predominately in English. The film’s appeal however should be ever-growing, which shouldn’t be a problem since it was an audience favorite already at this year’s Toronto film festival. This is the second film in a row that I’ve loved by Danny Boyle following last year’s science-fiction adventure “Sunshine.” Like I said, I’m not going to forget this one. Ever.

120 Minutes. Rated R.

ROMANTIC DRAMA / LATE TEENS & ADULTS / RACE AGAINST THE CLOCKER THRILLER / MASTERPIECE VIEWING FOR ANYTIME

Film Cousins: “Gandhi” (1982); “Salaam Bombay!” (1988); “Monsoon Wedding” (2001); “The Namesake” (2006).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of flickminute.com, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.

 

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