Sunday, July 28, 2013



The victory for the film SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was a nice surprise; here was a low budget film, heavily influenced by a foreign film gene most Americans had never heard of (Bollywood)with no Hollywood stars and set in a foreign country that was recused from a direct to DVD release to become a sleeper hit, echoing in many ways the underdog success of the film's hero.  While I prefer certain parts of the film more than others, I still think it ranks as a terrific movie, with a never dull story and good, naturalistic performances from the whole cast.

It's journey to the screen began when the novel Q AND A was published in 2005 by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup.  A year later screenwriter Simon Beaufoy began to adapt the novel and travelled to India to spend time in the slums and interview the children who lived there.  British film companies Celador Films and Film4 Productions showed the script to English director Danny Boyle, who was excited to work with Beaufoy, having enjoyed his 1997 film THE FULL MONTY. Casting directors were sent to the slums of Indian city Mumbai to find authentic street children to perform in the film, while English born TV actor Dev Patel and model Freida Pinto were hired to play the lead adult roles.  One of the casting directors, Loveleen Tanden, suggested that she translate some of the dialogue in the film into Hindi to add to its authenticity; Boyle agreed, and eventually had Tanden co direct the film with him.  The film was shot entirely on location in Mumbai and other parts of India.  When the film was completed, it eventually came into the possession of  the Warner Brothers studio, who had little faith in the film; after almost releasing it to DVD, the studio made a theatrical distribution deal with FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES.  Thanks to positive word of mouth and strong reviews the movie grew to be a sizable hit, making over $140,000,000 on a budget of only around $15,000,000.

Dev Patel & Freida Pinto

 Set in modern day Mumbai, the film's story is about young Jamal (Patel), a quiz show contestant who is accused of cheating and arrested and interrogated by a police Sergeant and inspector (Saurabh Shukla and Irrfan Khan),  to defend himself, he tells his life story; explaining that he and his brother grew orphan street urchins, and how, as if by fate, he knows the answers to all the questions he's being asked on the quiz show because they happen to be about actual experiences in his life.  Through the flashbacks, we hear how Jamal's brother Salim (Madhu Mattal) has become a gangster, while Latika (Pinto), the love of his life, has been forced into prostitution.  The sergeant belives Jamal and lets him go; he returns to the show, wins, and is reunited with Latika.
Danny Boyle's first became a well known director in 1996 with the highly entertaining cult hit TRAINSPOTTING, and he uses a similar cinematic style in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, one in which he contrasts stark, realistic shots with highly stylized ones that  highlight the emotional states of the characters. So there are many sudden unexpected  shifts in lighting, camera angles or film speed; giving both films an exciting feeling, and an often mesmerizing look.  Combine that with thumping, electronic soundtracks and you have a bracing, distinctly modern look for both films.
The film is well cast; with his broad features and constantly earnest expression Dev Patel is an actor that the audience automatically roots for as Jamal, and it's certainly believable that he would become a media sensation in India.  As for Pinto as his love interest Latika, her main job is look pretty and unattainable, both of which she does well.  I also really enjoy Anil Kapoor as the game show host  Prem Kumar, with his perfect on camera smarm hiding a much darker side.

Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail & Ayush Mahesh Khedakar

But the film's real scene stealing stars are it's charming, funny and engaging child actors. Hiring real slum dwelling kids to basically play versions of themselves works wonderfully, as they are natural performers who impress us with their resilience, intelligence and resourcefulness as they try to survive in a tough, adult world that usually either ignores or exploits them.   I love the way we see little Jamal(Ayush Mahesh Khedakar)  become an inadvertent guide at the Taj Mahal, making up stories as he goes, and I even like the silly gross out scene in which he literally wades through an out house to get a movie star's  autograph.  I like the kids in this movie so much, that I think the film really loses something in the latter parts when they grow up and the story moves away from being a homage to the survivor instincts of children and becomes more of a standard "lovers in danger" story.

There has been some criticism of this film's attitude towards the slum kids, with some Indians feeling that it exaggerated the worst aspects of Indian's impoverished, while others have taken exception with the film's upbeat ending; it is, perhaps, a bit odd that a film that can feature a moment as harrowing as a small child being blinded could end with a classic happy "love conquers all" kind of ending(complete with a great, feel good dance number in a train station).  Speaking as someone who's never been to India, I have to say that the tone of the film doesn't bother me, because, despite the modern locations, this story is essentially a fairy tale, a fact that its many stylized moments makes clear.  Is it, say,  believable that Jamal could possibly track down Latika in a city as big as Mumbai?  Not at all, but in the context of the film, it works.  The movie's theme, stated more than once, is "it is written", implying that Jamal's rise from poor orphan to wealthy celebrity is fated, and, not unlike a character out of a  Charles Dickens novel, his happy ending, after much trial and tribulation,  is inevitable.  It can also be related to the idea of karma, with Jamal, who has strived to be a good person, being rewarded while his brother Salim, who is a criminal, and who has often mistreated Jamal, getting his just deserts by dying in a hail of bullets at the exact moment that Jamal wins on the game show (although there clearly is some redemption for Salim as well, because he dies freeing Latika).  So, while I can understand why some people in India may be bothered by the film's portrayal of their homeland as slum ridden and violent, I imagine most audiences will not take the story as some kind of serious document of modern day India and just enjoy it for what it is.


While I'd be tempted to give the best picture award to Gus Van Sant's excellent MILK, which charts the rise of the modern gay rights movement and features a great performance by Sean Penn, or to Pixar's delightful WALL-E, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is so stylish and entertaining to watch that I won't argue with the Academy much.

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