Wednesday 18 February 2009

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

On the Indian version of the hit television quiz show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", filmed in a Mumbai studio that is just as slick as any in Hollywood, a young contestant Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) has shocked the nation by reaching the final round: one more correct answer on the next show and he pockets $1Million.

Given that Jamal is nothing but a tea delivery boy at a call centre, and his life started in the slums, Jamal both captures the imagination of the country and the suspicions of the authorities. He is arrested prior to the last show, tortured, and questioned as to how he was able to gain the knowledge needed to correctly answer all the quiz questions. Jamal's answers are the entry point into his life's story, and into Slumdog Millionaire's main narrative.

We witness Jamal's early life in a Bombay slum, right next to an airport runway, including his complex relationship with his elder brother Salim, and his early exposure to religious hatred. Jamal meets Latika, the love of his life, at a young age, but she drifts in and out of his life like an excruciating mirage. A life of petty crime provides an escape out of the slums for Jamal and Salim, but while it's just a passing phase for Jamal, Salim is sucked into the crime underworld for good, setting up tragedies and triumphs for both brothers.

Director Danny Boyle, working with co-director Loveleen Tandan from a script by Simon Beaufoy and Vikas Swarup (based on his novel), delivers a masterpiece. Boyle coaxes excellent performances from a young and relatively inexperienced cast, including several children. Dev Patel as Jamal, Freida Pinto as Latika and Madhur Mittal as Salim deliver memorable characters who are also portrayed as children and young teenagers by other actors, and Boyle captures the essence of each character from an early age.

The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle reflects India in all its colourful brilliance: from the slums to the highrises, from the glitzy television studio to the shabby police station, and from Mumbai's modern gated homes to the rural trains that are central to Indian life. The film's soundtrack provides a perfect but never overbearing emotional background to Jamal's life.

While Slumdog Millionaire is a story of a young man's rise from poverty, it is also the story of India's economic rise in the past 30 years. Jamal perfectly represents his country, rising from the slums and the edge of starvation to within reach of financial success in a few short years, overcoming internal and external obstacles along the way, using a combination of skill, luck, street smarts, outside help, and instinct. The challenges that he faces are sometimes self-created, and at other times imposed by external forces; as are the solutions that he uses to survive and thrive.

The film provides hints along the way that this is more a metaphor for a country than the story of one man. The issue of destiny is brought up right at the start of the movie, and later in a brilliant dialogue exchange, the police inspector demands to know how Jamal ever got to hold a $100 bill: "Tell me about the $100", he demands. "Bombay became Mumbai", is Jamal's cutting answer. Jamal and Salim also take a symbolic time-out to look down onto the slums of their childhood from the top a modern high-rise under construction.

The host of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?", Prem Kumar (played with just the right amount of sleaze by Anil Kapoor), is a perfect embodiment of outside powers providing both the tantalizing opportunities and tricky obstacles in the way of success. The brief insight into Kumar's own backstory leaves no doubt as to which outside power he represents.

Slumdog Millionaire works on all levels, providing entertainment, drama, romance, humour, and a deeply thoughtful reflection on a country going through a dramatic transition.

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