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.