Fri 21 Nov 2008
Is it an African or European Swallow?
2008 GOLDEN MUG WINNER:
Best Adapted Screenplay (Simon Beaufoy (screenplay), Vikas Swarup (novel))
Best Score (A.R. Rahman)
Best Song (“Jai Ho” by A.R. Rahman)
2008 GOLDEN MUG NOMINEE:
Best Director (Danny Boyle)
Best Supporting Actor (Irrfan Khan)
Best Cinematography (Anthony Dod Mantle)
Best Editing (Chris Dickens)
Best Sound (Glenn Freemantle, Tom Sayers, Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty)
Theatrical Release Date: 11/21/2008
Director: Danny Boyle – Co-Director (India): Loveleen Tandan
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irfan Khan, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Rubina Ali, Tanay Hemant Chheda, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar
Every year, there are two or three films that are truly must-see material. Normally, I choose the melancholy, oh-God-please-kill-me films and I sincerely hope that most people are looking for films with more optimism.
Well, either I’m having an aneurysm or my heart has grown a size because I’m actually going to recommend a film that is melodrama, star-crossed romance and chock full of hope – “Slumdog Millionaire”. (Also, I think it’s an aneurysm but I’ll head to the ER once I’m done writing.)
In the film, Jamal has managed to work his way up from homeless begger in the slums of Mumbai, India to the oh so envious position of providing tea to call center employees. He lands himself a spot on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and the beginning of the film sees him reaching the 10 million rupee level, one question away from winning the big prize of 20 million rupees (about $400,000 U.S. dollars as of this review).
Since Jamal’s background doesn’t include much education and his social status is the equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter, there is doubt as to how he could know all these answers. That doubt leads to police interrogation (a bit more physical in India than we see on “Law and Order”) and the film unfolds as Jamal explains the events in his life that have provided him with the answers. These flashbacks tell of his poverty-stricken, homeless childhood and how his brother, Salim, and childhood love, Latika, managed to survive on the streets.
Okay, enough plot – onto the reasons I’d like to have everyone who reads this see the film even though this is a film about Indians (dots, not feathers) and there are some subtitles (it’s mostly in English) … of course, I could rant about how subtitles should never dissuade audiences from seeing a film but I don’t want to digress too much.
First, there’s the immediate accessibility of the characters. The film is told using three age ranges and each set of actors do an excellent job of not only handling their own scenes but also fitting into the continuity of the collective cast. Helping this endeavor is Boyle’s decision to allow the actors playing each character to interact on-set, giving them a chance to discover the character together and pick up each other’s sensibilities.
Jamal (Dev Patel, Tanay Hemant Chheda, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) is the naive innocent of the group. He is always expecting the best of people and full of hope. Chheda and Khedekar in particular, as the two younger incarnations, are especially adept at evoking sympathy and protectiveness from the audience towards the character. He truly is the stereotypical Rudy-esque underdog and we can only hope he’ll overcome the final obstacles being placed in front of him in the film.
Salim (Madhur Mittal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) is the older brother and due to circumstances that leave the two boys on their own, he becomes the caretaker and provider of the family. He acquires the ability and taste for violence, using an increasingly flexible moral compass to keep Jamal and himself safe. Here again, it is the two younger actors that show more shades of gray to the character (Mittal’s scenes mostly involve cruel and heartless acts until an all-too sudden shift towards the end).
Latika (Freida Pinto, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, Rubina Ali) is a wayward girl the brothers take into the fold. With her, they describe this cobbled-together family as the Three Musketeers. She and Jamal instantly form a bond that develops into the kind of romance you only read about in books or see on-screen. It even warms/hurts a curmudgeonly miser like myself. Each actress playing Latika does a nice job of forming a character who is strong enough to do what it takes to survive in such a male-dominated Indian society but also vulnerable enough to maintain tension and an air of danger about her safety.
The film’s actors and archetypes are but the beginning of the many elements that the film gets right. Helping Boyle capture the look and feel of India is co-director Loveleen Tandan. She was responsible for casting and coaching the younger sets of actors for the main characters. This proved to be so instrumental to the film’s integrity and success that Boyle bestowed upon her the co-director credit.
Then there are the more technical aspects of the film. Many of the pivotal moments are gorgeously haunting because of how beautifully shot they were and weeks after seeing the screening I can still picture some of the scenes as if I had seen them minutes ago. Whether it’s the use of color, lighting, landscape or a blend of the three, “Slumdog Millionaire” evokes emotion with its imagery as well as the story and acting. This attention to the look and feel of the locations pays off whether in a run down slum or the Taj Majal – which is featured early on in the film.
Also, Boyle’s ability to establish chase scenes within the tight confines of Mumbai’s crampt and impoverished urban sprawl injects energy into what is essentially a character/class study. He and his team understand that India’s infrastructure is alive and ever-changing – a character of the film itself. As the production crew found out, a location scouted just a few months before shooting could have been drastically altered in that short time, thereby necessitating a new location. This challenge only seemed to help, however, as the vigor and vitality of the Indian culture comes through in every frame.
Another aspect the filmmakers got right is the music, utilizing a score by Bollywood legend A.R. Rahman. His compositions marry beautifully with the story and images on-screen. Even when it’s not original music for the film, the beats and energy derived from the songs are like an adrenaline shot to the heart.
Now, of course I can find some elements of “Slumdog Millionaire” that aren’t as laudable – most prominent of which is the believability of the story. It’s awfully convenient that most of the questions posed on the game show to Jamal directly relate to crucially pivotal moments in his life. And the character of Salim seemed to swing from good to bad on the drop of a hat. I realize that there were powerful emotions and conflicts within him but there wasn’t any time devoted to that in the film so it seems far too sudden.
Also, as much as I enjoyed Patel’s performance, he should thank Chheda and Khedekar for providing the groundwork to the character. Patel’s open-mouthed, almost expressionless stares at times were über-reminiscent of Ben Affleck performances and out of place for someone who should be so full of passion. When his character is confident, this little acting trick goes away so it appears to be a choice … I’m just not convinced it’s the right one.
Still, those elements give me no pause whatsoever in saying this is my number one film to recommend of 2008 so far and I hope that everyone who reads this goes right out to a theater and plunks down their $64 and enjoys an example of great film-making and plain, old fun. Boyle and company have gorgeously presented a story of love and destiny and now it’s up to all of you to go out and see it. A surefire 5 out of 5, “Slumdog Millionaire” is another example of how films can be made with the right combination of talent and hard work. I only wish Hollywood was paying attention to the wealth of ideas and stories out there in the world that don’t require placing numbers after the titles.
And be sure to sit tight for the fun Bollywood-esque credits sequence. Since it tonally didn’t fit in the rest of the film to have a dance sequence like this, it only made the inclusion during the credits even more uplifting and energetic. It should leave a big goofy grin on your face … or there’s possible something wrong with your medulla oblongata.