Saturday, January 17, 2009
My Oscar quest continues tonight with Danny Boyle (and Loveleen Tandan)'s Slumdog Millionaire, the delightful little film that came seemingly out of nowhere to win Best Picture at the Golden Globes last weekend. I went in without much expectations; I only knew vaguely what the film was about, and didn't really know what to expect out of it. Much to my surprise, I got a wonderfully joyous, enjoyable and excellent piece of entertainment. To use an awfully hackneyed but most appropriate cliche, it's a magical film, a crowd-pleaser of the highest caliber.
Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is a young Indian man who finds himself one question away from a 20 million rupee prize on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, hosted by the sleazy and selfish Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor). Arrested by police on suspicion of cheating, Jamal has to prove his innocence and account for his knowledge of the show's esoteric and eclectic questions. We see in flashback his trouble life in Bombay (Mumbai): his mother is murdered by Hindus in a race riot, and he joins his brother Selim (Madhur Mittal) and orphan girl Latika (Freida Pinto) on the run. They encounter a gang of criminals who take in children and force them to work as beggars and singers (eyeballs optional). Selim and Jamal escape, but Latika is not so lucky. As they grow older, Selim slides into a life of crime, graduating from petty crime to working as a henchman of a Mumbai crime lord (Ferroz Abbas Khan) while Jamal takes on various menial jobs to keep himself alive while trying to locate Latika - who happens to be the wife of Selim's boss. If I were tell to you that everything hinged on the game show's final question, would you be at all surprised?
The film wonderfully balances a sense of almost whimsical humor and light-hearted escapism with a dramatic storyline with dark undertones. Like Australia, it works best as a fairytale Valentine to India; a fairytale with serious undertones, but a fairytale nonetheless. It balances out a depiction of the horrible poverty in the more with the beauty of the country, and more importantly, a depiction of how humanity flourishes even in the most desperate of situation. It's a life-affirming movie, and I mean that in the best possible way; it will make you feel good about life and you'll come out of the theater with a grin on your face.
As a narrative, the film is perfectly constructed and expertly paced. The use of the gameshow as a framing device to string the narrative along is quite clever and effective; it may be a gimmick, but it works extremely well, providing the movie a sense of drive, and a share of ironic humor as well. The movie does an excellent job with its characters. Jamal is an Everyman, a good person trapped in a hideous situation, and his earnest attempts to gain Latika's affection and keep himself alive and out of trouble make him an immediately sympathetic protagonist. Selim undergoes the most impressive character arc, as he develops from a headstrong young boy into a budding criminal, and his increasingly conflicted feelings about his job and position. Latika isn't seen as much more than a prize to be won, but given the story's focus on Jamal that's an understandable fault. All of these plots and characters intersect with almost Dickensian improbability, but Boyle does it in such a way as to render any complaints moot. If the movie veers towards cliche and melodrama towards the end, well, it's largely earned it with what's come before.
In its depiction of the slums of Mumbai and the attendant squalor, Slumdog lacks the gritty realism of something like City of God, but anyone who goes into this film expecting such is wrongheaded to begin with. It bears comparison to the childhood scenes of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (Boyle even inserts a clever homage when Jamal and Selim watch Natika dancing through a peephole), a polished and romanticized but nonetheless believable depiction of life amongst the dregs of society. Of course, Jamal and Selim's adventures through Mumbai are romanticized to no small degree; their life as petty criminals is romanticized and made light of, but this is to be expected. It's hard to argue that scenes like the race riot between Hindus and Muslims, the orphanage's blinding of children (so they will make more money as beggars), or adolescent Latika's being sold into sexual slavery, are light and frivolous material. To be sure, it's not a documentary depiction of slum life, but the movie is a fantasy drama, not a social outrage film. The weaving of reality and fantasy is done expertly, and I feel only a churl would complain about this aspect of the film.
Technically, the film is quite accomplished. Other than an overreliance on slo-mo and shaky cam (and a few too many "zoom out to reveal the full extent of something" shots), Boyle and Tandan's direction is assured, capturing both the squalor and beauty of India without sentimentalizing it to an excessive degree. The editing is quite striking, particularly the creative use of dissolve wipes throughout. A.R. Rahman contributes a beautiful, evocative score, which mixes well with a selection of Indian pop songs and M.I.A. tracks (Paper Planes anyone?).
The acting is top-notch. Dev Patel gives a wonderful performance as Jamal, the lovable Indian Everyman. The gorgeous Freida Pinto makes her Latika an endearing character in spite of lack of screen time, and Madhur Mittal gives a strong performance as Selim. All of the child actors do exceptional work, managing to be funny and believable without being at all cloying. The best performance is Anil Kapoor as the slimy, duplictious game show host; he completely steals the show whenever he's on screen, and provides a wonderfully comic performance.
Slumdog Millionaire may not be the best film of all time, but best film of 2008? It's pretty close, though I might still rate Australia and Doubt ahead of it. (And until more of the GG Best Picture nominees get wide release, I think it's more than fair to crown it as such.) It's a magical film, and I think you'd have to be the ultimate cynic and grouch to dislike it. Although, God knows there are more than enough of you out there. But for me, it earns its sentimentality and the undeniably cliched conclusion. Dare I be so bold as to suggest that if a movie makes its audience feel good, then it's a good, perhaps even a great film? I think I dare.
Rating: 9/10 - Highest Recommendation