Slumdog Millionaire

Starting with 1995’s Shallow Grave and 1996’s Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle has put together a smart, eccentric and unique body of work. He has dabbled in all kinds of genres from crime movie to science fiction to family comedy to horror. Not all of his films have been complete successes but they are invariably interesting and intelligent.

Slumdog Millionaire may be his best film yet. The setting is Mumbai, India, and since this film was written and shot  months ago, the recent tragic events in that city are not addressed and obviously should not be a factor in considering this film. Not that life wasn’t tragic enough in Mumbai, even before those horrific events. Filthy shantytowns lay scattered on the outskirts of the city and homeless families and orphans drift along the streets like litter. The poverty can only be described as grinding. Two brothers, Salim and Jamal grow up in this awful place. When their mother is killed, they are left to fend for themselves. They quickly pick up a third companion, Latika, a girl and another orphan. Jamal assumes that the three will always be together, watching out for each other. The vagaries of life, however, make that impossible and over the years they are separated and reunited in a series of tragic events.

When Jamal is eighteen he tries to find Latika for good by being on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He knows she is a fan and will be watching. What he doesn’t count on is that the questions he is asked on the show are ones that he happens to know the answers to. Each question is related to an incident in his life. When the police arrest him on suspicion of cheating, he is forced to tell these stories. This provides the frame story.

Needless to say this narrative device relies too much on coincidence to be realistic. But Boyle uses this drawback to brilliant effect and blends the fantastic tone of the structure with the gritty reality of the setting and plot seamlessly. In fact it drives the story. There is something uplifting in the fact that even in face of such overwhelming hardship, these characters can still dream and find  the determination to work to achieve those dreams. We are thinking human beings and hope is as important to us as food and shelter. Despite the amazing string of easy questions he gets on Millionaire, Jamal works for his happy ending.

This is a long move, close to two hours, but it doesn’t seem like it. Mumbai, even though a hellish place, is vibrant and alive and Boyle’s film captures that energy. To be completely fair Indian director Loveleen Tandan co-directed the film. It’s not clear which scenes she directed but I assume she did all the location and Hindi language stuff. Together, they keep this epic moving. It’s a beautifully shot film, with all the vibrant colors you associate with India and yet the slum scenes are shot realistically.

The performances are terrific, the best obviously is Dev Patel as Jamal in his first role in a major film. He captures both Jamal’s innocence and his determination. This kid should have a long career. Freida Pinto is good as Latika who is resigned to the fate life has for her and yet still longs for something better.  The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent.

Slumdog Millionaire is one of the best films of the year.


1 Response to “Slumdog Millionaire”

  1. 1 Susan January 7, 2009 at 3:24 am

    “Mumbai, even though a hellish place…?” I know from this sentence that you have never been to Mumbai. London was not portrayed very nicely in “Trainspotting,” either, but I wouldn’t call it a hellish place. Just hellish circumstances for the characters of both films. Cheers, Susan.

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