DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (director: Danny Boyle; screenwriters: Simon Beaufoy/based on the novel “Q & A” by Vikas Swarup; cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantel; editor: Chris Dickens; music: A. R. Rahman; cast: Dev Patel (Jamal), Anil Kapoor (Prem Kumar), Saurabh Shukla (Sergeant Srinivas), Irfan Khan (Police Inspector), Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (Youngest Jamal), Freida Pinto (Latika), Rubina Ali (Youngest Latika), Madhur Mittal (Salim), Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (Youngest Salim), Sanchita Choudhary (Jamal’s Mother), Ankur Vikal (Maman); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Christian Colson; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2008-UK/USA)

 
"Energetically merges Hollywood with Bollywood."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The lovable urban drama feel-good 'rags-to-riches' fable, in the vein of Dickens, energetically merges Hollywood with Bollywood. The reinvigorated intensely aesthetic Brit director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting"/"Shallow Grave"/"28 Days Later...") finds inspiration to shoot the film in Mumbai (aka Bombay) with an all Asian cast of mostly unknowns and nonprofessionals. Mumbai is a modern big city in India, its film capital, where globalization provides new jobs and offers the city modern technology, but the city is still dogged by its slums. 

This is the talented but uneven filmmaker's most decidedly mainstream venture to date, that nevertheless has subversive political undertones in regards to showing the scope of human misery that still exists despite showing the upturn of a country's economy. But it's visually where the film gets its most stupefying results due to its colorful sets, dazzling kaleidoscopic shots and its proactive always in motion camerawork. The crowd-pleasing contemporary fable, that makes a lot of bad things right by its upbeat ending, has to fight throughout to undo the sappiness that sticks to it like curry does to the teeth; but in the end, in a cheerful way it leaves you caring about the children's ordeal to survive the hardships of an impoverished upbringing under particularly adverse circumstances. It's based on the novel “Q & A” by Vikas Swarup and is written by Simon Beaufoy. 

It tells the tale of the feisty but bland 7-year-old Jamal (played as an 18-year-old by the British actor Dev Patel, in his film debut) and his more daring hustler older brother Salim (played as a young adult by Madhur Mittal), two young orphans who are forced to survive on the squalid streets of Mumbai alone after their mother (Sanchita Choudhary) is killed in a violent anti-Muslim riot by Hindus and in the process are forced to become beggars for an enterprising criminal who kidnaps orphans in the slum, "Maman" (Ankur Vikal). Think of Maman as Fagin, but actually someone even more evil.  In this setup, in the Mumbai slums, the brothers befriend another young orphan named Latika (played as a young adult by Freida Pinto) and playfully call themselves the Three Musketeers. Jamal soon falls hopelessly in love with the pretty Latika, but when the trio learns that their evil boss plucks out the eyes of some of the beggar orphans because that way they can earn even more money for him they plan to escape by train but get separated from Latika. She's kidnapped by the criminal boss, who values her as a virgin so he could get a big price for her to work as a prostitute. Things get even uglier when the undependable Salim, who has always sought what his brother has, is hired to work for Maman as his flunky, after he confronts the boss's enemy with a gun (as the enemy of my enemy is considered a friend, in these tribal parts of the world). 

After many years apart from both his brother and Latika the now 18-year-old Jamal, an innocent who still believes in the pure message of love he learned from his Muslim religion, is without a formal education and working as a lowly chai-wallah (going on errands to bring tea back to office workers for a telemarketing telephone service). Jamal goes on the country's popular quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire because he thinks that's his best chance to make contact again with Latika. Even though he knows so little, Jamal's about to be the first one in the program's history to win the top prize of 20 million rupees by answering multiple choice questions that are posed on the screen for the viewer to also play the game. The show's glib and smarmy host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor, Bollywood star, in his first role in English), believes Jamal can only answer the questions because of one of the following reasons:  "A. He cheated. B. He's lucky. C. He's a genius. D. It is written." Prem suspects that it's because he's cheating, therefore he takes drastic action to prove it. Before Jamal goes on the next night to compete for the top prize, Prem gets the police to kidnap Jamal and torture him in the police station to confess that he's cheating. From this bizarre grilling by the sadistic investigator (Irfan Khan) and his jolly sergeant assistant (Saurabh Shukla), that includes waterboarding and electric shocks, the film goes into flashback as Jamal in a matter of fact way recalls how he knew the answer to every question asked; which turns out to be because his street experiences made it possible for him to know the answers and his faith made him persevere to follow in his humble path. The young man, now a national hero, is more interested in locating Latika than in winning, and still maintains his innocent pose which is to surrender in humility to accept without reservation what is written. This sincere attitude prompts the police to release him to appear on the show, believing at last he's not capable of cheating or lying.

In covering the bustling city, Boyle contrasts life for the downtrodden slumdwellers dreaming of upward mobility and the spoiled new middle-class living in luxury hi-risers and greedily wanting more as a result of the new global economy. As a touristy shot, we also get a gander at the magnificent Taj Mahal where Jamal comically pretends to be a tourist guide. But Boyle's ulterior aim, despite providing a suspenseful and comical story, is to just tell a good yarn that is lucid and uplifting even if it's about life that's chaotic and darkly mysterious. Though I've previously had little love for most of Boyle's films, I must confess to falling for this film's seductive charms while shying away from my natural instinct to point out how preposterous is the manipulative story. Just when it appears predictable as straight realism, it unexpectedly exits in a fantasy mode by putting a song in your heart and at the same time clearing up its plotline by answering the multiple choice question it poses about how the young hero, an exemplary example to the cynical world, found in his own way what he was destined for--to become the "slumdog millionaire."

REVIEWED ON 12/4/2008        GRADE: A-

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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