Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
It's hard to talk about Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan's Slumdog Millionaire. Even discussing the opening sequence would give away too much of what is to come, and the way in which it is told, which is one of the chief delights of the film's story--even though I thought it would be hackneyed as I first saw it unfold. It's not at all.
On the other hand, the plot can be described generally without giving away too much more than what is apparent from trailers. Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young man from the slums of Mumbai, India. It follows him from some of his earliest childhood memories, of the joy of being a child with his brother Salim and his mother, of the poverty and violence which are rife there, and of his first love, for a girl named Latika.
We meet Jamal halfway through his "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" run, and watch as he narrates his early life. In the flashback scenes, Jamal, Salim and Latika are each played by two different children. Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Hemant Chheda are the youngest and middle Jamal, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala are the youngest and middle Salim, and Rubiana Ali and Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar the youngest and middle Latika. These younger actors are the heart of the film, their performances mixing and melding seamlessly with the performances of the older actors (Madhur Mittal as Salim and Freida Pinto as Latika) as we go back and forth in time with them.
Jamal, Salim and Latika leave the slums at the same time, separated from their families after a violent riot, and end up camped out in the slum of the slums, a garbage pile they share with dogs, foxes and water buffalo. Here, they are seemingly rescued by an orphanage which turns out to be run by gangsters. Jamal and Malik are separated from Latika upon their escape from this factory for child beggars and end up hustling for the rest of their childhoods, running tours and scams at the Taj Mahal, riding trains without tickets, working in restaurants. Salim eventually gets caught up in the same kind of gangsterism to which the children were once victim. Jamal becomes a "chaiwallah" or gopher at a cell-phone telemarketing center.
But Jamal never gives up on his childhood love for Latika, through separation, disappointment and betrayal. When he sees his chance to win enough money to be able to triumph over the circumstances separating him from her, he finds himself on an amazing, unbelievable winning streak on India's version of the worldwide game show.
Anil Kapoor, as the host of the game show, is the most outstanding actor besides the nine who play the three main characters of the story, his character giving him the opportunity to show quite a range of emotional levels and interest.
The film is hyperkinetic, set to a dance-music soundtrack with Hindi, English and Spanish lyrics which add to the urgency of the story, suggesting a way forward even through the harshest circumstances. This makes even the most hopeless situations seem temporary and capable of transcendence.
Some have criticized Slumdog (including a famous Indian actor who becomes one of the film's characters) for various reasons, including opportunism, "poverty tourism" and racism. There are elements of truth to these charges, but ultimately the film is a fairy tale, a rags-to-riches story which does not aspire to answer any of those charges, so it seems a bit unfair to torpedo the film for any of those reasons.
Slumdog is a rich, ebullient, sad, funny, exciting story of one young person's determination to rise above his past, universal despite its specific setting. It has a lot in common with a previous Danny Boyle effort, Millions, also about a young boy whose optimism is a bit crazy and allows him to bring possibilities out of what must seem like thin air to those not "similarly afflicted."
Finally, the storytelling device which I have tried not to give away does clearly smack of gimmickry. But in other ways, it illuminates the story in such a way that one doesn't mind very much. Like Millions, like Dickens's Oliver Twist, Slumdog Millionaire is a rousing, charming and well-told tale.
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