Monday, November 24, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)

Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's pseudo-Bollywood crowd-pleaser, is unabashedly treacly, with Boyle complementing the story of a boy from the slums who eventually wins both the grand prize in India's version of a famous game show franchise and the love of his life with his energetic aesthetics that indulge in quick cuts, bright colors, and depictions of chaotic beauty. Mumbai, the heart of India and one of the world's busiest urban centers, turns into an apt setting for this genuinely amiable fairy tale of boy and girl live happily ever after amidst a backdrop of poverty, religious persecution, corruption, and everything else that is wrong in this world of ours.

Boyle, who, like his fellow Brit filmmaker Michael Winterbottom (who I feel is a more consistent filmmaker), has jumped from one genre to another with relative ease, crafts a film that is plebeian in its sensibilities (I suspect this will be a hit in cinemas in India, drawing cheers and jeers from rowdy moviegoers, before finally getting slightly uncomfortable with the finale kiss (which is still taboo in Bollywood cinema)), but maintaining his trademark visual kinetics, with his camera gliding through narrow alleys, capturing colors and textures that enunciate the film's exotic value. In one sequence where a group of street urchins are chased by the police through the labyrinthine passageways of the slums, Boyle exemplifies his talent for hyper-kinetic editing, sufficiently complementing Mumbai's attractive chaos with his trademark artistry (of course, Filipino director Brillante Mendoza has accomplished a similar feat in the opening sequence of Tirador (Slingshot, 2007), done with only a fraction of Boyle's budget, but achieving greater results).

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is just a question away from claiming twenty million rupees from the local version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, when he is taken into custody by the police. Suspected for cheating his way through trivia questions professionals and intellectuals have a difficult time answering, Jamal, a Muslim boy who was born and raised in the slums of Mumbai and is now is working as a tea boy in a call center, is tortured and interrogated by the police because it is seemingly impossible for a man of his history and background to accomplish that much. His interrogator (Irfan Khan, who infuses what essentially is a token role with unusual intensity), whose initially tough exterior (and insistence on unconventional methods for forcing the truth out of his captives) melts to reveal a sensible and fair man, becomes the audience's barometer for the plausibility of Jamal's tales.

The interrogation serves as the narrative device for Jamal to relay, in several prolonged flashbacks, the several pertinent chapters of his life that consequently led him to the answers to the questions in the game show. As we see Jamal grow up, escape the slums, separate from his streetsmart brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), the attention slowly drifts from the more facile rewards and consequences of his game show exposure to expose the true heart of the film: Jamal's heartfelt reunion with the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto), eventually turning Slumdog Millionaire from a witty rags-to-riches tale into a delectable, if not purely escapist, treat where, if we are to believe the Beatles, all you need is love.

Yet there is something more to Slumdog Millionaire than its infatuation with destined encounters with cash and love. The climax, where the entire city stops to see if Jamal can answer the final question and eventually win the loot, summarizes the film's inherent charm. Mumbai turns into one parking lot, with its citizens, mostly the poor (the rich are busy watching sports, perhaps because the hope that the game show delivers is no longer a necessity for them), tuning in and supporting their hero. During that sequence, Boyle enlarges the situation, from being a mere personal quest for Jamal to find Latika (and vice versa) into a national (if not encompassing the rest of humanity) quest to prove that there is something more to life than poverty and suffering, that lots improve, and there are real fairy tale endings.

One begins to understand what these game shows mean to the third world, that these shows are not purely consumerist visages but harbingers of hope to those who should be hopeless. In the year of Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace, nth sequels of popular film franchises that have made the conscious decision to be darker and more in line with the supposed grim state of our world, getting popular and critical approval, Slumdog Millionaire, is a welcome breath of fresh air.


Anonymous said...

Pinalabas na po ba ito?

Oggs Cruz said...

Not in Manila. I saw this while I was in New York.

Ganga said...

Nice review.

//before finally getting slightly uncomfortable with the finale kiss (which is still taboo in Bollywood cinema)

Changing trends in Bolwood- Almost dozen films have come out recently with kissing scenes.

Enjoyable reviews.
I work with a women's film festival in Chennai, India. Could you suggest a few filipino films made by women or have a strong woman's perspective?

Anonymous said...

I'll keep this simple: Cancel whatever you're doing tonight and get a copy of "Slumdog Millionaire" at Metrowalk instead. Yes, you, the girl obsessed with "Twilight" and the guy still hung up on "The Dark Knight." Take the grandparents, too, and the teenagers. Everyone can play.

You've never heard of the actors. A third of the film is in Hindi. Much of it takes place in the most fetid, poverty-ridden corners of the Indian subcontinent, and most of it isn't nice. Yet this sprawling, madly romantic fairy-tale epic is the kind of deep-dish audience-rouser we've long given up hoping for from Hollywood. "Slumdog" is a soaring return to form for director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting"), but mostly it's just a miracle of mainstream pop moviemaking - the sort of thing modern filmmakers aren't supposed to make anymore. Except they just did.

Unfolding with the scope and brisk energy of a Dickens novel transplanted to Asia, "Slumdog Millionaire" is the tale of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a lanky, sad-faced Mumbai slum kid who, when we first meet him, is poised to win 20 million rupees on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" He has already aced the first rounds; tonight, the entire country will be tuning in to hear his final answer. The show's host, a blow-dried slickster played by Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor, is not happy. So much so, in fact, that he has arranged for the local cops to give the kid a working-over.

Is Jamal a genius? Is he a cheat? How would a young man with no education and a life on the streets know whose picture is on a US $100 bill? That's what a police lieutenant (Irrfan Khan, the father in "The Namesake") hopes to beat out of him. When torture doesn't work, he sits the boy down in front of a videotape of his appearances on the show and demands to know, question by question, how Jamal did it. And thus an entire life unfurls before us, as does the history of modern India itself.

Boyle, working from Simon Beaufoy's adaptation of a novel by Vikas Swarup, gives us Jamal's unsentimental education in head-spinning, vertiginous flashbacks that become the main story line. Each answer on the TV show becomes a key that unlocks another chapter of the boy's past, a pat narrative device kept from cliche by the deft, vital filmmaking.

The first sequence, prompted by a question involving a famous Indian movie star - the sort of factoid any Mumbai kid would know - shows the hero's early years as both horrifying and exuberant. Jamal (played as a child by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and his brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) take their desperate existence as merely the soup in which they swim; Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle visualize that soup with an astonishing pullback that reveals the vastness of Mumbai's tin-roof chaos.

The siblings' innocence, such as it is, ends when their mother (Sanchita Choudary) is killed in the anti-Muslim riots of 1992-93 and they take to the streets, picking up an urchin girl named Latika (Rubina Ali) in the process. The three small musketeers are taken in by a smiling villain (Ankur Vikal) who runs a school for child beggars; what this Fagin does to create an extra-special line of underage street singers marks the grueling nadir of "Slumdog Millionaire," yet the movie, knowing such things happen, doesn't let us look away.

The trio grow into adolescence and young adulthood, by which point the brothers have chosen their respective paths. The adult Salim (Madhur Mittal) has gone for quick cash and gangster glory; Latika (Freida Pinto) is the kept plaything of a mobster boss (Mahesh Manjrekar). Jamal has found work as a gofer at one of the new Mumbai's energetic, youthful call centers. He serves tea, absorbs everything around him, and, when needed, dons the headset to deal with cranky old ladies in Scotland.

Good brother, bad brother, childhood sweetheart torn between the underworld and true love: We've all been here before. Warner Brothers and MGM used to dine out on this stuff in the 1930s, with actors like Jimmy Cagney and Pat O'Brien and Ann Sheridan in the roles. Boyle cherishes the tale's popcorn durability, though - it's an old story because it works - and his team retrofits it, polishes it up, and sets it careening.

Mantle's images and Chris Dickens' editing are infused with the go-go colors and rhythms of the subcontinent; the co-direction by Loveleen Tandan adds to the sense of teeming sensory overload; the music keens with beauty and corn. (Even the subtitles feel fresh, popping up like speech balloons all over the screen.) The characters are archetypes draped with specifics of time and place and, in Jamal's case, of character. As Patel plays him, he seems too studious - too inward-directed - to be the hero of such a big movie, yet that's why we come to love him. In the rushing slipstream of "Slumdog Millionaire," he's our anchor.

This sort of headlong melodrama has long since dropped out of fashion in our irony-drenched age, and some audiences, I'm sure, will turn up their noses. There have been grumblings that the film's just too pretty, and that a movie about India directed by an Englishman can't be taken seriously. Allow me to float the idea that it's possible to talk yourself out of intense moviegoing pleasure.

And "Slumdog Millionaire" is a pleasure, as Jamal negotiates every obstacle before him (including, in one nerve-wracking turn of events, a psychological showdown with Kapoor's preening host), and teeters between intelligence, luck, and a destiny that he has in large part made for himself. In his story, the movie implies, is that of an entire modern nation. After the dust has settled, the Bollywood dance scene that explodes under the closing credits feels both incongruous and earned: Young India kicking up its heels.

You may even feel like dancing in the aisles yourself. Sure, the real world doesn't always work this way. Have you forgotten that this is one of the reasons why we go to movies in the first place?

Anonymous said...

"rowdy moviegoers"?

nice perception of us indians. 'kin armchair tourists.

Oggs Cruz said...

I apologize if the comment seemed to generalize all Indians... I saw this in New York, where I had the pleasure of seeing the film with a few Indian families, who were, much to my delight, quite involved, jeering and shouting remarks as the movie went on. This is the type of movie-watching I miss, where audiences become involved with the film, to the point of, sorry for the term, being rowdy.

jayclops said...

Frankly, I love the dance sequence at the end to the point that I am already mimicking some steps. Jeez. That movie!

sammish said...

I did not like the movie that much. It was too kish for me and too Bollyood. And I, certainly, do not think that it was worthy of the best picture at the Oscars.

Then again it was an American movie, pumped with dollars instead of ruppees and it was not a Hindu movie. If it was it would have won the oscar for the best foreign movie category.