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New Review: Slumdog Millionaire (spoilers inside)

February 27, 2009

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Happy endings for Academy Award Best Picture winners are few and far between (in fact, I believe the last happy romantic ending for one may have been the 1965 winner The Sound of Music). The great love stories that have won since then usually involve some sort of tragic ending (The Godfather Part II – yes, an important love story, Terms of Endearment, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind, Titanic, ok you get the point).

So it was of great surprise to me (mostly because I avoided any media about the movie) when the 2008 winner Slumdog Millionaire ended on such a positive note. The boy does get the girl. Fairy tales can come true!

Clenching all the way through the last scene, I waited for a train to hit one of them or for a stray bullet to fly out of nowhere. Sure, it was not to be expected, but my mental state couldn’t even dream that a happy ending could be possible. Does that mean I am a bitter soul? No, I have just been trained that happy endings and Oscars don’t usually mix.

So it was with great relief that I unclenched my hands and smiled, tears streaming down my face as Jamal (played by Dev Patel) kisses the scar on Latika’s face (Freida Pinto) thereby erasing so much of their heartache in their search to be together. Masterfully, images spin backwards to seal the significance of the moment.

Yeah, I am a big softie.

But what else I was, in that moment, was completely engaged. A magic that happens only so often in a movie is the ability to make me surrender completely to its spell and forget everything outside of what is happening on the screen. Normally I fidget, think about what I am going to eat later, or what e-mails I have to return, all while trying to force my attention back to the big screen.

But not with Slumdog Millionaire.

Instead, I was caught up so much so that I forgot I was not alone in the theater and at a particularly funny moment I laughed hysterically to the point I would say I guffawed. Then I quickly realized I was “that” person in the theater that usually annoys the crap out of me. But the next thought that hit me was – why is everyone else in the theater not laughing? Why am I so emotionally invested in this and they sit woodenly silent?

Perhaps my own devotion to Indian culture, having been both madly in love with it and deeply broken by some of its traditions led to me having a larger investment in the story. I tried to detach my own interests, but honestly, who else in that theater has seen hundreds of Bollywood films and immersed themselves in Indian culture? It is possible my ties to India led to me connecting much more than they, but gauging the reaction of most of the rest of the country, I highly doubt that is all it is.

The movie begins with a question. Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? A) He cheated, B) He’s lucky, C) He’s a genius, D) It is written.

But the focus is on A, he cheated. Because the Indian police can not imagine that a kid from the slums could have the intelligence to answer the questions correctly. And why should he? His entire background is one of hard work, no education and nightmarish conditions that are unbearably and sadly true for so many of India’s children at the lowest caste level.

And yet, there is something to be said for the life of hard knocks. For the worst of experiences to lead to a moment that may happen with a bit of (B) luck, or (D) fate. Because one thing is for sure, Jamal is not a genius.

He’s a tenacious kid that never took the time to study during the small window of time that he was in school as we are shown in the first of many flashback scenes. Jamal tells the police inspector (the amazing Irrfan Khan) particular life moments that lead us into the finale. Khan plays a pretty straight role in this but if you get the chance, go back and watch him because he is brilliant. From his first role “Salaam Bombay!” to “The Namesake,” he always expresses deep compassion and a great heart. His father figure roles are always complex and somewhat tortured; he really is a great performer.

In the original story from which Slumdog Millionaire is adapted, Jamal is quite different from the one we see on screen. Unlike the experience of watching his mother be clubbed to death during a Hindu-Muslim riot, the book Jamal is raised in an orphanage and does not know his mother. And he doesn’t have a brother. Nor does he have a childhood friend Latika. Instead he meets her when he visits a brothel and goes on the show to buy her from her pimp.

But for once, I like the movie version better. What Simon Beaufoy did with the script was capture not just a story about a kid that wins some money, but the spirit of India and a homage to its films. The addition of a brother to the story as the protector, friend, troublemaker is so symbolic of the tumultuous relationship to the land itself. If Jamal did not have that character in the movie, there would have been no catalyst for so many of the driving moments in the film, nor the linkage to the great Dumas adventure, The Three Musketeers. Also this is why it is important for him to know Latika at an early age and in a much more innocent fashion than meeting her at a brothel as in the original tale.

As for the homage to Bollywood, perhaps one of the greatest scenes in the film, or one in which I literally almost jumped out of my seat to scream, “That is brilliant!,” was when the two brothers, after having escaped from terrible circumstances at an orphanage live out their days on trains traveling through the countryside. When attempting to steal food from a passenger they are flung off the train and roll down a hillside, dirt flying all around them. The scene cuts from a wider angle to intimate close shots of their face with a continuity that I found outstanding. When they end their roll, they have aged to their early teens, shifting from their early child actors to the second pair of actors. I instantly thought of a montage scene from Mera Naam Joker, a Bollywood film where the young version of the main character Raju travels across the countryside.And really, to pretty much any film relating to India as a movie about India can not be made without some significant portion being on a train.

But as the two boys progress as teens, their relationship is altered by elder brother Salim’s decision to kill their friend Latika’s captor – another significant shift from the original story. Jamal is pushed out after a drunken Salim possibly takes advantage of Latika, but in great Bollywood style this is only referred to by a closed door, never any imagery.

Jamal escapes the path of crime that his brother is hellbent on heading towards and finds a job as a chai-wallah (basically a tea server) at a call center. He relays all of this to the police while intersecting with the present Who Wants to be a Millionaire competition.

And therein is what makes Danny Boyle so great as a director. He tells us upfront that Jamal wins the money. We know this and yet somehow due to his masterful ability to keep us suspended we still hold our breath waiting to hear if each answer is correct. At the same time he balances that use of suspense with a romantic story that also takes our breath away (unintended Top Gun reference).

But this is not surprising. He has shown us this once before with The Beach. In that film, the romantic tension between Richard (Leo Dicaprio) and Francoise (Virginie Leyoden) is palpable and undeniable. You can feel the heat sizzling between them. Sure, most of my affection for Boyle as a director is related to Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, but after seeing Slumdog his range as a director far surpasses what I thought when I saw his 28 Days Later in 2002.

And Boyle manages much of the same, albeit with a much better film than The Beach (although I do actually like that one), between Patel’s Jamal and Pinto’s Latika. You fall in love along with them. You are taken on their adventure from the first moment when we see her shivering in the rain to when he races towards her at the train station to finally kiss her. Again, a great tradition of Bollywood is the clean, simple romance unentangled by sex.

But not everything is perfect. This may have fantasy elements, but I mean, this is not a Bollywood film, no matter how many nods to the Indian cinema there may be. Salim becomes the sacrificial lamb in order to let Jamal retain his innocence. Jamal is shielded against much of the atrocities committed against children of the slums. Even though Latika is not, she is eventually saved. But that doesn’t give much comfort when we recall earlier wide pan scenes of the countless shacks that make up the slums.

Where are those children now? Will one fictional story perhaps make a bigger impact than the countless documentaries that have been done on these children? What effect can Slumdog Millionaire have besides winning big at the box office? Or should it have any impact?

Sure, I left with a happy dance number (Jai Ho!) and a good love story, but I also left with a sick stomach, saddened by the thought of what the real children of India’s slums live through on a daily basis.

The film is meant as a work of fiction and ignores many cultural traditions of India to portray a sweet romance with innocent characters untouched by their rough upbringing. However, using real slum children to portray the younger characters definitely makes the concept worth examining. Some claim it is not an Indian film, and it is not – it is a Westernized version that attempts to recreate a complex culture and overall does a good job at taking care to do that – but the reality for Westerners is that this may be the only India they truly experience. Most will not dive headlong into Indian culture but will shape their meaning of the society on the images from the film (or at least hopefully this and not the horrible Love Guru).

What is positive in the images is that, unlike much of Indian cinema, it does not shy away from the gritty realism of India and the slums or what is happening to children. We see a child so desperate to meet a movie star that he wades through feces to get to him. We see pre-pubescent girls sold off as prostitutes (for more on this see the amazing documentary Born in Brothels). We see an entire system that cares nothing for unwanted children. The police shoo them away while they watch TV, ignorant to a man on fire running through the street in terror. These things are real in India, but would the American audience just see this as all part of a movie?

Perhaps that is all they should take away, a fantasy, a nice underdog wins the prize and gets the girl, universal film. But something in my gut tells me, maybe, just maybe, the casting had a bit more intention than that. Now that I have written my review, I may dive head-long into the conversation and find out what others think about this.

A happy ending is mandatory for a fairy tale, of which Slumdog Millionaire is simply: a fairytale. But one with many lovely images and a soundtrack that captures the spirit of a story. I can’t disentangle my own experiences with this colorful, smelly, noisy vibrant, rich culture in order to give you a proper American perspective of the movie. But from my end, Boyle captures a slice of India and its films. And for that, I am ready to watch it over and over again.

Oh and PS – Malco has this in digital projection, the first for Oxford. What a great film with such a rich tapestry to begin with a crystal clear image. For screen times go to www.malco.com

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