Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Movie review: Slumdog Millionaire

Last night, I went to see the film Slumdog Millionaire, co-directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan. Apart from Boyle's highly-disturbing but brilliant 1996 effort, Trainspotting, I was unfamiliar with either director, but after viewing Slumdog, I have two new favorites to add to my list of great directors. Quite simply, this film is fantastic! It is the most entertaining and moving film I have seen since the Coen's Brothers' No Country for Old Men.

It is the story of a boy, Jamal Malik (played by three different actors, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as the child Jamal, Tanay Chheda, as the middle Jamal, and Dev Patel, as the young man) born into the slums of Mumbai (Bombay), India, who through the bizarre experiences of his tragic life, accumulates enough seemingly unrelated knowledge to contend for the top prize in an Indian game show.

As the film begins, Jamal is being tortured by the police in order that he reveal the method by which he cheated to win on the game show. A "slumdog" like Jamal could not possibly have gotten so far in the game without cheating. Jamal endures a brutal session of interrogation, maintaining that he knew the answers to the questions, that he was not cheating. Eventually, the police inspector (Irrfan Khan) agrees to hear Jamal's story, and the main narrative begins.

We follow Jamal, his older brother, Salim (played by Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, and Madhur Mittal), and Latika, an orphaned girl whom Jamal befriends (Rubiana Ali, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, and Freida Pinto) as they make their way through Mumbai's mean streets, trying to survive, to forge decent lives for themselves. As they make their way through a myriad of dangers and horrors (angry mobs of Hindus, child-exploiting mobsters, and a brutal police force) they cling to one another and form a family of sorts.

But, rather than recount any more of the plot here, I urge you to see the film yourself. It is an enchanting blend of Western and Bollywood filmmaking; the story is compelling; the acting is superb. The score, by A. R. Rahman, conveys the bewildering and chaotic forces of the new center of the world, Mumbai, with its 19 million people. And there is a delightful Bollywood dance number as the closing credits start to roll.

Besides providing a fascinating view into "real" India, the film raises temporal moral questions about child exploitation, materialism, and the persistence and endurance of love. For example, the two brothers, Salim and Jamal, both eventually come into large sums of money via two completely different routes. Salim, who has earned his scratch by being the meanest dog on the block, eventually comes to realize that his fortune is meaningless. Jamal, on the other hand, has little interest in the fortune that falls into his lap; for him, the only real thing of value in his life is the love he has for Latika. Jamal's belief in love, his indifference towards money, serves almost as an admonishment to Western culture. Well, at least, this Westerner felt admonished.

Note that the film has several very disturbing sequences that will be difficult for those with delicate sensibilities. But the film rewards its viewers handsomely. This is an excellent film. I give it my highest recommendation.

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