Friday Film Focus: Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a breathless, exciting story. The heartbreaking and exhilarating tale centers around a Mumbai orphan who rises from rags to riches on the strength of his lively intelligence.

What I feel for this movie isn’t just admiration, it’s mad love. Slumdog is an explosion of color and light with darkness ever ready to invade. It’s a family film of shocking brutality, a romance haunted by sexual abuse, and a fantasy of wealth fueled by crushing poverty. The film’s surface is so dazzling that you hardly realize how traditional it is underneath. This is the real India, supercharged with a plot as reliable and eternal as the hills.

Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of an orphan from the slums of Mumbai who is born into a brutal existence. A petty thief, impostor and survivor (who’s also mired in dire poverty), he improvises his way up through the world. The film begins with 18-year-old Jamal Malik reaching the final question of the quiz on the popular television show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. All the while, he amazes the suave yet patronizing host, Prem (superb Anil Kapoor) and the nation as well. How has this uneducated slumdog from the depths of Mumbai come to be on the point of winning 20 million rupees? After call, Jamal is only a chaiwala (a server of tea) at a call center.

Prem thinks he’s a cheat, and hands him over to the cops. The authorities beat Jamal up, waterboard him, and knock him unconscious with electric shocks. Despite this torture, Jamal continues to persist. Jamal tells the story of his life to an initially disbelieving but increasingly sympathetic inspector (Irrfan Khan). Cutting between the police questioning, the TV studio and a decade in Jamal’s life from seven to 18 (he’s played by three actors), the film reveals — tragically — how Jamal picked up the bits of information that enabled him to answer each and every question correctly.

This included having to identify a movie star, a poet, the face on a $100 bill, and the inventor of the Colt revolver. Jamal is searching for two people from his childhood: His wild older brother Salim (an outstanding Madhur Mittal), and his adored Latika (the achingly lovely Frida Pinto). Salim has turned into both a thief and a killer. Latika — a former child prostitute — is now the plaything of a notable gangster. Every incident, including the brothers’ watching their mother die in an anti-Muslim riot, feeds into Jamal’s answers on the show.

Jamal’s traumatic youth is his lifeline. Boyle makes magic realism part of the film’s fabric. It’s the essential part that lets in hope without compromising integrity. Jamel is essentially Oliver Twist. High-spirited and defiant in the worst of times, he survives. At a young age, Jamal and Salim understood the art of survival in a cruel world. Forced to forage and live by their wits as they commit petty crimes, the boys make their lives more interesting when they accept a new partner, the adorable Latika (who 7-year-old Jamal quickly comes to adore). The street kids learn more smarts from a Fagin-like operator who runs a sort of criminal orphanage in a remote area, sending his stooges into the city for dishonest days’ work.

When it seems Jamal is about to have his eyes gouged out to make him a higher-earning beggar, the three make a desperate run for it. The boys manage to jump on a speeding train, though Latika was sadly left behind. Jamal scrapes out a living at the Taj Mahal, which he did not know about but discovers by being thrown off the train. He pretends to be a guide, inventing “facts” out of thin air. Jamal advises tourists to remove their shoes before later stealing them. Through Jamal’s experiences, we see a panorama of a vibrant India undergoing traumatic changes. Everything is here, from the slums and brothels to the booming call centers and palatial homes of the super-rich.

The film uses dazzling cinematography, breathless editing, driving music, and headlong momentum to explode with narrative force. All the while, it stirs in a romance at the same time. For Danny Boyle, it is a personal triumph. The film is a visual wonder, propelled by A.R. Rahman’s hip-hopping score and Chris Dickens’ kinetic editing. The whoosh of action and romance pulls you in, but it’s the bruised characters who hold you there. Even in the Bollywood musical number that ends the film, joy and pain are still joined

Image Source: Hollywood Reporter