Director : Danny Boyle
Screenplay : Simon Beaufoy (based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Dev Patel (Jamal), Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (Youngest Jamal), Freida Pinto (Latika), Rubina Ali (Youngest Latika), Madhur Mittal (Salim), Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (Youngest Salim), Sanchita Choudhary (Jamal’s Mother), Anil Kapoor (Prem) and Irrfan Khan (Police Inspector)
At his best, director Danny Boyle comes somewhere close to alchemy, making invigorating and original cinema out of material that, on the face of it, just shouldn’t work. Having burst onto the scene in the mid-1990s with Trainspotting (1995), an outlandish excursion into the seedy world of Scottish heroin junkies, he has since dabbled in just about every genre imaginable, oftentimes turning them on their head. Boyle’s brand of daring comes with a price, though, as his experimentation always runs the risk of backfiring. For all his successes like 28 Days Later (2002), which all but reinvented the zombie film with its low-res aesthetics and racing, ravenous hoards, and Millions (2004), a sweet morality tale that managed to sidestep virtually all the saccharine pitfalls of kid-centered movies, he drops a bomb like A Life Less Ordinary (1997), a mangled screwball comedy about angelic intervention, or The Beach (2000), a meandering adventure tale.
His latest, Slumdog Millionaire, is one of his most powerful successes, easily his best film in several years and one that has almost every reason not to work. Taking place in Mumbai, the breathlessly told story centers on a poor young man named Jamal (Dev Patel) who finds himself the center of national attention when he is chosen to be a contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (adapting the novel by Vikas Swarup) thrust us immediately into a disorienting array of temporally fractured scenes that find Jamal correctly answering questions on the hyper-mediated game show and then being brutally interrogated by the police some time later. The story structure quickly gels, with each question on the game show, which is being reviewed on tape by Jamal’s interrogator, providing the entry point into a flashback story involving Jamal’s childhood that explains how he knew the answer to the question.
Thus, the game-show suspense is but a clever framework to structure the story of Jamal’s life, which is beset with Dickensian hardship, tragedy, and poverty. One of the first flashback sequences finds Jamal (played as a child by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and his older brother Salim (Mohammed Ismail) living in a massive, sprawling Mumbai slum that is suddenly overrun by an anti-Muslim mob that kills their mother, immediately turning them into orphans. On their own, they survive however they can, at one point joining a gang of orphan beggars run by a malicious, Fagin-like mastermind who doesn’t think twice about purposefully blinding the children because a blind beggar can make twice as much. Along the way Jamal and Salim meet Latika (Freida Pinto), an orphan girl to whom Jamal immediately feels himself attracted and who will become a kind of beacon throughout his life, driving him to find her whenever they are separated.
Jumping from past to present, the narrative weaves an increasingly absorbing narrative web that draws you in even though you’re never entirely sure where it’s headed. We know that Jamal gets far enough into the game show to warrant his interrogation because, after all, an uneducated “slumdog” like him couldn’t possibly know all these answers. However, one of the film’s most striking points is that education isn’t necessarily a product of formal schooling, which is ironically underscored near the climax when the one question that Jamal doesn’t know for sure is the one he should have learned in school. More important, then, is the experience of life, of which Jamal has more than his share. While his life is one of constant danger and heartbreak, always teetering on the brink of catastrophe, the ultimate message is one of hope and salvation.
As brother stories often do, Slumdog Millionaire uses Jamal and Salim as opposite poles, with Jamal maintaining his fundamental decency even in the worst of times while Salim falls prey to the criminal life that offers the possibility of power and money to even the most down and out. It’s not a particularly original story, but Boyle directs it with such energy and vibrancy that it comes alive anyway. The film’s use of bright, bold colors and its mixture of electronic beats and traditional Indian music underscore its rousing approach to life, which finds the beauty in the tragic and rewards those who maintain faith in the ultimate rightness of the world even when everything seems to be going wrong. The film’s most affecting moments are sometimes its most tender, such as when Jamal consecrates his final reunion with Latika by gently kissing the jagged scar across her face, and sometimes its most boisterous, such as the unexpected Bollywood-style musical number that plays during the closing credits. Slumdog Millionaire may be assembled out of a cross-cultural stew of familiar parts, but it constantly feels rich and inventive.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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