Slumdog Millionaire

December, 2008, Drama

Directed by:Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan (co-director: India)

Starring:Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Tanay Chheda, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Ismail, Rubina Ali, Anil Kapoor, and Irrfan Khan

Before slipping into Bollywood sentimentality in its final reel, Slumdog delivers what may well be the best – and certainly most heartfelt – movie-going experience of the year. British director Danny Boyle, (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and his co-director Loveleen Tandan marry the florid cinematic conventions of India’s film industry, (much larger than Hollywood’s) with a hard-edged examination of life lived on the margins of the world’s largest democracy. In does so by presenting the audience with a mystery to solve; can a seemingly uneducated and improvised young man from the slums of Calcutta (now Mumbai) amass sufficient knowledge in his life circumstances to become a successful television quiz-show contestant? In the course of answering that question, Slumdog weds guileless childhood exuberance to the harsh realities of adulthood by tracing the divergent lives of Salim and his younger brother Jamal, orphans who somehow manage to blossom in the fetid compost of 21st century urban poverty. 

Like many older siblings, Salim both defends and victimizes his sibling as they progress from scavenging in one of the city’s many garbage dumps into a life of carefully managed professional begging and then onto petty larceny. Along the way, Jamal befriends Latika, an equally dispossed girl from their neighborhood and Salim reluctantly takes her under his wing as well. But as Salim metastasizes from petty criminal to serious felon, he exploits both Latika’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation and Jamal’s inability to physically defend her. The film’s storyline follows this trio through adolescence into young adulthood in a series of flashbacks set against Jamal’s surprising run on India’s version of the popular television quiz show ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” 

In deftly constructed scenes of mounting suspense, the directors vividly demonstrate the circumstances in which Jamal developed the knowledge required to successfully gather the random facts he needs in order to proceed to successive levels of the contest. By the time the ultimate question is posed, the brothers have had a violent falling out which culminates in the film’s oddly disappointing resolution, contrasting Jamal’s last appearance on the quiz show with Salim’s final confrontation with the crime boss who has taken Latika as his mistress. 

This clichéd denouement undercuts Slumdog’s brilliant celebration of youthful exuberance triumphing over crushing poverty; despite the often desperate choices the brother’s face in surviving their childhood, they battle their circumstances with a bracing zest that’s genuinely heroic. But the storyline marries that agonizing vitality with a sentimentalized depiction of their lives as young adults. What begins as a vivid testimonial to the universal value of society’s throwaways winds up becoming a piece of feel-good escapism, with a dose of Kismet thrown as philosophical explanation; the whole thing’s just a story folks, meant not to inspire or instruct, but merely to entertain.

Boyle’s faced the difficulty of carrying the moral point of his story to successful dramatic conclusion before. In Millions, his charming 2005 film, he examined the impact of sudden wealth on two working-class kids in the days just before the creation of the euro. In that film, Boyle fashioned appealing British versions of Salim and Jamal, then traced how each brother viewed the purposes to which material abundance should be put. Having set up a superb moral premise, Boyle dissipated its impact with a romantically melodramatic outcome similar in tone if not in content with that employed in Slumdog. The director knows how to tell an interesting story, fusing real ethical issues with immensely appealing characters - - but he seems to lack the strength of his convictions when it comes to challenging audiences with the responsibility to draw their conclusions from his work. He tries for substance but settles for froth. 

But what an emotional ride Slumdog provides until the let-down of its ending! The wide-eyed youngsters who play this appealing trio (three different actors for each stage in the lives of the three principals) are breathtakingly appealing as they morph from street urchins to adolescent miscreants to twenty-something’s adrift in the mass of India’s churning urban humanity. The cinematography of Anthony Dod Mantle (who also fashioned deliciously visual childhood fantasies for Boyle’s Millions) delivers the dazzling, squalid colors of contemporary India in all their mysteriously compelling beauty.

The verdict? Don’t let the bark of this movie’s hokey resolution tempt you to skip experiencing the bite of its early scenes - - the first hour or so of this beguiling film is as emotionally gripping and visually lavish as anything else put out this year and on the basis of those strengths alone, Slumdog should be high on your “must see’ list.

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