Slumdog Millionaire

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

It’s kind of strange that Slumdog Millionaire was marketed as a feelgood movie. Yes, it has a fairytale ending, but it’s a story filled with violence and misery. There’s a lot of shit to crawl through.

At one point the film takes this literally. There’s a scene where the hero, Jamal, has to wade through loads of excrement in order to meet a film idol of his. With poo dripping off him, he’s the one person who manages to get an autograph. I’m guessing the movie star admired his determination.

And it’s Jamal’s determination to hold onto his dream that allows him to overcome all the obstacles that face him. He won’t let anyone get in his way.

Of course, as in most ‘feelgood’ movies, the dream is a beautiful girl. Jamal is obsessed with Latika, and throughout the movie we see his mind flash to a recurring image of her standing at a train station and smiling up at him. He plays it over and over in his head. Getting the girl is all that matters to him.

Even fame and wealth don’t matter. But in a curious twist of fate, Jamal ends up on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? – it’s his final attempt to win over the woman he loves.

And the game show is an excellent framing device for the movie. At first I was concerned that it might be too gimmicky or just plain dull. How interesting can a game show be? But instead it works superbly, serving as an imaginative way of telling the character’s life. All the questions and all the answers somehow reveal something more about the man.

Another concern I had about the framing device was the fact that the film begins with Jamal’s torture for doing so well on the game show. Therefore, knowing that he’d got the questions right, the game show scenes would have little tension. But thankfully the filmmakers have a couple of tricks up their sleeve.

The first trick concerns the game show host. At one point, when Jamal is in the bathroom, he gives Jamal the answer for a particularly tough question. Is the game show host helping him or trying to screw him? We already know that Jamal gets the question right, but we don’t know whether he goes with the TV personality or against him. As it turns out, the game show host is pissed off with the fact that Jamal may become a bigger star than him and tries to fuck him over. Thankfully Jamal trusts his instincts and ignores the host.

Before I go on, I must point out how annoying the game show host. He’s a right smug bastard. But he’s annoying in a good way. He helps us identify with Jamal even more – we want him to beat his smarmy sparring partner and go home a rich man. And all the casual insults and mentions of him being a ‘chai wallah’ tell you a lot about this society. Yes, the economy may be exploding and skyscrapers might be replacing slums, but equality is still a long way off. It’s still the haves against the have-nots.

But back to the game show…

The second trick is the way that Jamal gets through his torture unscathed and then has to return to the television studio to finish the game. Finally, at the very end, we have a question where the outcome is unknown. And the tension in this scene is palpable. I haven’t been on the edge of my seat like that in a long time.

Not that the monetary outcome is of any importance. The important thing is that Jamal manages to get the girl. But of course, a few million Rupees won’t hurt.

The one disappointing thing about the film is the chemistry between the adult Jamal and Latika, or lack thereof. Sparks don’t fly. Some of the little moments between them just feel a little flat. Thankfully, though, you have Danny Boyle on hand to inject the film with loads of visual pyrotechnics to make you forget the fact that the love story is actually a little bland. The train station scene, for instance, is so fantastic because of the energy that is injected into it by the director.

In fact, the directing is so energetic that sometimes it’s on the verge of schizophrenia. Nearly every shot is a crazy Dutch angle. But for some reason, it works really well. The characters never get a chance to see the world straight on – their viewpoint is always skewed, their reality a little distorted.

For me the best scenes are the ones that focus on the characters as children. In particular, I love the sequence where the two brothers are on the train. They tie themselves to the roof and spend their time stealing and grifting. Even though they’re thieving, the sequence is filmed with such an exuberance and innocence that you can’t help but think of them as loveable little tykes. This is really the only way they can survive.

But mere survival isn’t what these characters long for. Each wants a part of the new Indian dream. Jamal’s brother is a casualty of this, falling into the trappings of easy money and criminality, but Jamal somehow manages to overcome his slumdog origins and fulfils his destiny. It’s a fairytale ending but getting there is hell.

Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Produced by Christian Colson
Original Music by A.R. Rahman
Cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle
Starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto and Anil Kapoor

Running Time: 120 mins

Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language, you chai wallah!

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  1. Once again, a well crafted and entertaining review. I noticed you just watched Days of Thunder (again??). Please, oh please review that one soon :) Tom from Oz again