Friday, January 23, 2009

In Theaters: Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire poster and IMPA link
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE occupies the enviable and yet difficult position of “heartwarming art house darling”. These movies come out at the end of every year, get showered with awards and good grosses and good reviews, and after a while you’re completely sick of them. The backlash can be severe; just ask Diablo Cody. But SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is not nearly as cloying or precious as the Oscar buzz would make you fear. After the implacably pretentious SUNSHINE, Danny Boyle, working with Loveleen Tandan, has created a project full of energy, infusing a fairytale narrative with gritty realism without drowning out the fantasy altogether. It’s just fun, and avoids a number of pitfalls by moving quickly and never overplaying its hand.

Our hero is Jamal Malik (played in the present by Dev Patel, and in flashbacks by Tana Hemant Chheda (younger) and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar(youngest)), a slum kid turned coffee-server who has become a contestant on India’s version of WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE? He’s one question away from winning the full prize of 60,000,000 rupees, and because he has no educational background he’s suspected of cheating. So, under interrogation, he tells us how he knew the answers to each question, and in so doing tells us the story of his life and how he got to this point. He and his brother Salim (played in chronological order by Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, and Madhur Mittal) lost their mother to religious violence and were forced to strike out on their own, begging in the streets and quickly falling into the hands of small-time gangsters. During these travails Jamal met Latika (played chronologically by Rubiana Ali, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, and Freida Pinto) and fell in love with her at first sight. They were separated when Jamal and Salim escaped from the gangsters, only to reunite years later, only for Salim to fall in with another group of toughs and take Latika with her. Now, he’s on the cusp of winning more money than he has ever seen, but if anything that’s secondary next to his real goal of rescuing Latika, if that’s even possible. But then, this is the kind of movie where anything’s possible.

The film mixes styles and structures that you wouldn’t expect to go together: a heroic love-conquers-all adventure, nonlinear storytelling, brutal crimes, adorable tykes, hyperrealism, and Bollywood style are all thrown together and somehow mesh. At heart it’s a very Dickensian view of modern India, from its grungiest to its most glamorous with a few stops in between. I’m not entirely sure how it all works together, but it achieves a unique consistency. It helps that we don’t linger on the grittiest aspects of the environment; though the film has an R rating, what violence there is isn’t explicit, and many details are tastefully minimized. One scene that struck me is one shortly after Latika is liberated from a brothel- we can see burns and scars on her arms, but the camera never does a straight angle on them and nobody talks about them. As reckless as the direction sometimes seems, there’s a lot of discipline involved.

The protagonist is an interesting fellow, honest to a fault and a big believer in destiny. He’s not the most detailed character, but that’s partly by design, and all three actors do a good job at creating a consistent personality. The central romance is mostly of the “love at first sight” variety, with little room for what we’d call a modern and mature relationship to develop, but so much of romance only works if you forget about what we consider modern and mature in relationships anyway. Nor is the why of it that important; Latika’s a damsel, Jamal is a hero, his obligations are clear. The story’s not completely conventional or predictable, but the old tropes are there.

Two elements of the story don’t quite work as well as intended. Salim’s fall into gangland corruption is a predictable arc, and it’s not clear why he is tainted by this world while Jamal remains spotless. When we see that Jamal is an innocent being accused of fraud, we assume it’s either class prejudice or network corruption leading to the assumption that he must be cheating. However, it’s later revealed that it’s almost entirely the doing of MILLIONAIRE’s host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) who doesn’t want any contestant’s story eclipsing his own. Kapoor gives a fine performance, one of the best in the film, but making him the heavy seems to leave the network and the rest of society completely blameless. Then again, I wonder if getting the rights to actually use WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE required that any corruption be limited to one bad apple.

So I’ve got minor plot complaints, but when it’s all said and done (and you don’t want to leave when the credits start, trust me) it’s a fun film and the climax genuinely had me in suspense. I’m already seeing some backlash against the film in some corners of the internet, but I think it’ll hold up. It’s crazy and naive and probably not the most accurate portrayal of Indian society you’ll ever see, but it’s one of the more enjoyable ones. Sometimes pure entertainment trumps all other concerns; this is one of those times.

Based on the novel “Q & A” by Vikas Swarup
Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Grade: A-

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