Saturday, November 15, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire: Astonishing Comedy-Drama of Modern India


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Slumdog Millionaire, a new film from British director Danny Boyle in association with Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan — the exact division of labor between the two isn’t specified in the publicity — is an astonishing movie that works on several levels at once. Based on a novel by Vikas Swarup, Q&A, and written by The Full Monty screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire is a fast, energetic, gripping movie full of fascinating resonances. Though some of the darker sequences of the slums of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) echo the Brazilian masterpiece City of God, for the most part Slumdog Millionaire is sui generis, without any obvious antecedents in other films — and from someone who’s seen enough old movies that he can usually tell where a new movie is ripping off its basic plot from, that’s high praise.

Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal Malik (Indian-British actor Dev Patel), who’s within one question of winning the 20-million rupee jackpot on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (from a host who’s considerably hunkier than Regis Philbin!) when he’s suddenly arrested on suspicion of fraud. Two police officers string him up from the ceiling by his wrists — the classic strappando torture position used by authoritarian regimes from the Spanish Inquisition to the U.S. at Abu Ghraib — and connect electrodes from a car battery to his big toes. This is hardly the way one expects the central character of a movie described in the ads as a comedy to be introduced, but it quickly develops that both the law and the show’s producers can’t believe that an 18-year-old slum kid who works at a call center for a U.S. cell phone company could possibly have known enough to answer all the questions correctly.

The film proceeds on three tracks at once as Jamal, while in police custody, is shown a videotape of his appearances on the program and asked how he knew the answer to each question. Each of his answers triggers a flashback that starts with him as a boy, living on the streets of Mumbai, ducking his mother as much as possible and surviving by his wits. His only companion is his older brother Samir, who alternatively helps him and screws him over. They meet a famous Indian movie star and have to flee mobs of militant Hindus who want to beat them up for being Muslim. They end up sneaking rides on freight trains, where Jamal meets a girl his age, Latika (played as an adult by Frieda Pinto), who becomes the love of his life even though for the rest of the film they’re apart far more than they are together. In the film’s most hilarious sequence, they scam the tourists visiting the Taj Mahal.

Slumdog Millionaire is an extraordinarily rich film set against the backdrop of a rapidly changing India that still remains quite traditional in many ways. The film shows Mumbai’s poor scraping out an existence in shacks made of plywood and corrugated tin, washing and bathing in the filthy river that runs through town, all in the shadow of giant skyscrapers and office parks accommodating all the software and technical service jobs that U.S. and European countries have outsourced there. One of the film’s most oddly moving moments is when Jamal and Samir look down from a hill at the slum neighborhood where they grew up — and it isn’t there anymore; it’s all been torn out and replaced with skyscrapers.

There’s a lot of plot in Slumdog Millionaire. There are brutal gangsters, prostitutes (including Latika when she grows up) and murders. There’s also a hauntingly noble ending evocative of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, a book which figures prominently in the story. There are quirky signs of India’s halting road to modernization as the computer tech support capital of the world, including a sign on the wall of a subway station urging people to “LEARN ENGLISH! LEARN COMPUTER!” and the huge placards inside the call center where Jamal works spelling out exactly what he and his fellow operators are supposed to say to the customers. (Once you see this movie, you’ll never hear a sales call from a cell-phone company quite the same way again.)

It’s a measure of the filmmakers’ talents that this movie goes off in so many directions and yet remains coherent and watchable. The casting directors, Gail Stevens and co-director Loveleen Tandan, deserve special praise because the three principals — Jamal, Samir and Latika — each had to be played by three different people, representing them at various ages. Few movies are able to make that gimmick work because rarely do the actors look enough alike to be believable as the same person — but here they do. From the rather grim opening to the uplifting ending and a charming postlude — a musical production number set in a railway station and shown as part of the closing credit roll (don’t leave this film before the credits are done!) that pays tribute to India’s own “Bollywood” productions, notorious for shoehorning songs and dances in at the slightest pretexts — Slumdog Millionaire is gripping entertainment and moving drama.

Slumdog Millionaire opens in San Diego on November 21, 2008 at Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas, 3965 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest. Please call (619) 299-2103 for showtimes and other information.