Slumdog Millionaire

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 11/12/08 11:00:00

"A romantic fable from an underappreciated filmmaker."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Slumdog Millionaire," the latest film from filmmaker Danny Boyle ("Sunshine," "Millions," "28 Days Later," "A Life Less Ordinary," "Trainspotting," "Shallow Grave"), is a romantic fable and coming-of-age tale set in modern-day Mumbai (formerly known to Westerners as Bombay). It’s also a clear-eyed exploration of the effects of globalization on India through the experiences of a young man and his improbable rise as a game show contestant on the verge of winning 25 million rupees. Filmed with Boyle’s trademark hyper-style (e.g., lots of quick cuts, handheld camerawork, filters, film lab, processing, and canted angles), "Slumdog Millionaire" is the rarest of films: easily accessible to English-language audiences while retaining its Bollywood influences (and flavor).

Adapting Vikas Swarup's bestselling novel Q and A, Boyle and his screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, center Slumdog Millionaire on Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young Indian, Muslim by tradition, who’s on the verge of winning 25 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? hosted by Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor). With only one question remaining, the show runs out of time. With millions of Indians from every social class waiting for the final question and Jamal’s answer, Jamal leaves the television studio, only to be arrested and tortured by a police inspector (Irfan Khan), who suspects Jamal of cheating. Jamal, the “slumdog” of the title, has no formal education and works as a lowly tea server for an Indian call center.

As the police inspector questions Jamal, Jamal circles back to the formative experiences that make him who he is, flaws and all, from: his early life in a Mumbai slum, the wrenching loss of his mother during an attack by Hindus on Muslims, his conflicted relationship with his older brother, Salim (played by Madhur Mittal as an adult), through the exploitative, Dickensonian orphanage that takes in Jamal and Salim, the friendship with a young girl, Latika (played by Freida Pinto as an adult), who becomes Jamal’s great unrequited love, a lucrative interlude as a faux Taj Mahal tour guide, Salim's disturbing willingness to use violence to survive and advance in the criminal underworld, and ultimately, back to the game show and the questions Jamal semi-miraculously answers to the growing excitement of millions of television watchers, due to more to chance than anything else.

Stylistically, Slumdog Millionaire is often a wonder to behold. Boyle uses every quiver in his stylistic arsenal, from quick cuts, colored filters, canted (or “dutch”) camera angles, handheld camerawork (especially during the frequent foot chases), and visual compositions that emphasize natural and man-made beauty. Boyle finds visual beauty even in the slums, using color (mostly from fabrics or piles of debris) to create striking, almost abstract compositions. At no time, however, does Boyle’s style undermine or interfere with the central purpose of narrative film: joining in and participating in the central character’s emotional and dramatic journey.

Slumdog Millionaire is, at its core, a conventional romantic fable involving star-crossed lovers, seemingly impossible obstacles (e.g., social class, social mobility, etc.), and overcoming them, often with help from luck or beneficent strangers. If anything, that makes Slumdog Millionaire predictable, even formulaic, but, as Boyle and Beaufoy prove, it’s often not the formula that counts, but what you do with it, how you breathe life into moribund conventions. It helps, of course, that Slumdog Millionaire is set in an “exotic” location, modern-day India (exotic to English-speaking, Western audiences, of course) that help mask how closely Slumdog Millionaire’s follows genre conventions all the way through to the tear-inducing, crowd-pleasing ending.

Style and story aside, it’s hard to argue that "Slumdog Millionaire’s" feel-good ending isn’t well earned. Like Boyle’s earlier film, "Millions," "Slumdog Millionaire[/i] runs the gamut from life affirming, to uplifting, and (here comes the dreaded “i” word) inspirational. "Slumdog Millionaire" is certainly all those things. But why would anyone expect anything different from a film that’s part romantic fable (destiny rears its read, multiple times) and part wish-fulfillment fantasy (e.g., what winning the lottery is for millions here and elsewhere).

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