Thursday, July 2, 2009

Let's Go Crazy Bollywood Style: Slumdog Millionaire Review (Review #12)



Slumdog Millionaire (2008)


At the beginning of Slumdog Millionaire, we're asked a question in the style of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire: Jamal Malik is one question away from winning India's version. He did so because: A.) He cheated, B.) He's lucky, C.) He's a genius, D.) It is written. Take a guess as to what the answer is. Through the course of the film we eliminate choices one by one. We also pretty much know how it will end, but the greatness of Slumdog Millionaire isn't the end result but in how we get there.

The film is basically set in one day in the life of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) with extended flashbacks that take us through the course of his short life (he's only around 18). The police do not believe that a 'slumdog', a poor boy from the slums, with no education, and employed as a tea server at a call center, could genuinely have knowledge that the more educated of Indians do not. There must be fraud, so the police are determined to get it out of him. What they get instead is his story. Each flashback shows us how he could know the answers. Some of the flashbacks are funny (as when as a child he gives perhaps the funniest guided tour of the Taj Mahal) and some are tragic (for example, how he knows who was the author of a great Indian poem).

Each question asked on the game show almost coincides chronologically with Jamal's life. If there is a common theme throughout our hero's life, it's love. This is a love story, primarily between Jamal and the love of his life: Latika (Freida Pinto), who he's known ever since a joint tragedy intertwined their lives. It also is a love story between Jamal and his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). Salim is a complicated character: he can be terribly cruel to his younger brother (like selling the autographed picture of Jamal's Bollywood idol), but at heart, Salim always does right by Jamal. It may look like Salim is the villain, but he really is a hero. To pick up on the Who Wants to Be A Millionaire theme, Salim ends up as one of Jamal's lifelines.


It's a curious thing that a film where India is an uncredited star, the main characters are Muslim rather than Hindu. It's another link to the idea that Jamal is the truest underdog, someone who suffers from lowered expectations, and that's why we embrace him. We know his story, and know that he's a good kid. We're also held in suspense when he has to make a very important choice that gives us a great insight into his character. We want him to succeed, cheer him on as he gets closer and closer to his ultimate goal. Curiously, it's not winning the game.

If anything, Slumdog Millionaire shows that knowledge doesn't come from study alone. Jamal's life experiences have given him answers to questions that most of us would consider trivial, even unimportant. However, as the film shows, each answer came at a price, either to himself or to those around him.

It's so wonderful to have a film where, although in our hearts and minds we already should know how it will end, we still find ourselves moved by one individual's story. In fairness, there were a few things I didn't think meshed. After he's arrested and interrogated (or tortured) on suspicion of cheating on the show, curiously there's no mention of what would ordinarily be a scandal on the show itself. I thought that strange.

I also thought that how he arrived at the final answer to the final question (by just guessing...because) was weak, almost lazy. Though I have no objection to seeing Freida Pinto under any circumstances, I kept thinking Dev Patel as the adult Jamal looked perpetually stunned at everything and anything that happened. Perhaps that's how it was suppose to be, but for some reason that kept throwing me off.

****SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!****

Ultimately, Slumdog Millionaire is a fine film. In these troubling times, people want to cheer someone on who succeeds when everyone had written him off. A movie with a happy ending, one where our hero gets the gold AND the girl? That would make ANYONE break out into a big Bollywood-style song and dance number.
DECISION: B+

2009 Best Picture Winner: The Hurt Locker

Please visit the Best Picture Retrospective for reviews of other winners.