'Slumdog Millionaire': The Great Escape

Metroland | December 18, 2008
If you're an adult drawing breath in this last quarter of 2008, you're surely aware of the state of the human condition. Optimism is remarkably hard to come by, and for good reason: For every glimmer of hope to grace the front page of the daily news (Godspeed, President Obama!) there are several more signs that we're pretty well screwed (quickening climate change, global economic collapse, rampant terrorism, and so on). There's not a lot to look forward to these days.

Well, here's something: Slumdog Millionaire, the latest film from English director Danny Boyle, presents the kind of hope for the hopeless that the world needs right now. It's a pure feel-good ride, a color-saturated, Dickensian rags-to-riches story about a kid from the streets of the impoverished slums in Mumbai, India, who finds himself on the verge of fame and fortune -- and love -- thanks to a stint on a popular game show. Slumdog is a relentless crowd-pleaser, a romantic fairy tale that celebrates the golden days of big-screen escapism, even though it bears little resemblance to anything Hollywood has produced in decades.

Jamil Malik (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning 20 million rupees (about U.S. $500,000) on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? The show's host (Anil Kapoor) suspects him of cheating -- how could this street urchin possibly know all the answers? -- and has him interrogated (and tortured, in one of the film's few remotely graphic scenes) by the police. As Jamal explains to the police the origins of his knowledge, the answers unfold pieces of his narrative. In flashback, we witness the young Jamal and his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) wallowing in the squalor and filth of the slums; the death of their mother at the hands of a Hindu mob; Jamal's meeting of, and many separations from, his lifelong love, Latika (Freida Pinto); and a series of skin-of-their-teeth escapes from the gangsters and criminals that rule the streets.

Boyle knows a ripe opportunity when he smells it, and he made the most of this one. It's an unbelievable but, in the words of the film's police inspector (Irrfan Khan), bizarrely plausible story, and the film's success could be called the same. The screenplay, based on the novel Q & A, cleverly clothes a simple tale about love and destiny in a Three Musketeers romp. Shot on location in Mumbai using hi-definition digital video, Boyle marries the crackling energy and fractured storytelling of Trainspotting with the disorienting blur of 28 Days Later. The dialogue is about one-third subtitled Hindi, but never hard to follow; the music, by famed composer A.R. Rahman, is as lively as the on-screen action.

And the cast of mostly unrecognizable Indian actors makes the picture: Patel, known in England for his role on the serial Skins, has a quiet intensity and the looks of a matinee idol; Bollywood vet Kapoor is perfectly smarmy and patronizing; and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, who plays Jamal as a child (both Jamal and Salim are played by three different actors), is worthy of an Oscar nomination for his irresistible energy -- he all but carries half the film. (It should be noted that the contributions of casting director Loveleen Tandan earned her a co-directing credit.)

Mumbai serves as a microcosm of the world at large: It's the second most populous city in the world, a port city that doubles as its nation's financial center, home to both unparalleled prosperity and abject poverty, and the site of one of the most horrific terrorist attacks in recent memory. But for the purposes of this tale, it's a stand-in for any big city -- in U.S. terms, it's New York and Los Angeles rolled into one and cut with post-Katrina New Orleans. And while some will complain that Slumdog Millionaire doesn't fully delve into the true nature of Mumbai’s seamy underbelly (there's an India-for-dummies feel to some of it, in favor of a broader optimism) it's not really about that -- it's a movie about life and liberty, but mostly the pursuit of happiness. And it's ultimately about the cinematic experience, the power of entertainment to make you forget about life for a few hours at a time. On that last count, Slumdog Millionaire is the best picture of the year.


Metroland was founded in 1978 as a monthly entertainment guide; a year and a half later it went weekly, continuing to focus primarily on arts, entertainment and lifestyles. In September 1986, Metroland reinvented itself as a full-fledged alternative newsweekly, offering...
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