The Night Out: Slumdog Millionaire (2008), or Mumbai Fairy-Tale

8 02 2009
Bollywood romance is always good, even when its made by Anglo-Saxons.

Bollywood romance is always good, even when it's made by Anglo-Saxons.

TA-DA! Afternoon, folks! I have seen 3 of the 5 Oscar-noms for Best Picture! I am unstoppable! Soon, once I hunt down Frost/Nixon and Milk, my Oscar coverage will be complete! Mwahahahahahahahahaha! And today’s Oscar-nom is an interesting one! We go to the far-off slums of Mumbai to find a tale of poverty, danger, and romance.

Slumdog Millionaire, based on the book Q & A by Vikas Swarup, begins with a young man being questioned and tortured. His name is Jamal, and he is on a game show, namely the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. The police and the game show’s host feel that there is something not right, because Jamal was born a poor child in the Juhu slum, and although he never received much in the way of an education he is answering every single question right. They feel as if he must be cheating. How else could he know the answers to all of these difficult questions? Once he finally gets a chance to explain, he tells them the story of his life, and how he came to know all of these things through experiences he has had. The rest of the movie is told in flashbacks intercut with footage from the game show. The death of his mother, he and his brother Salim’s life on the streets of Mumbai, the discovery of his childhood love Latika. All of these things have given him incidental knowledge to win the game show. Can Jamal explain himself before it is too late? And what were the circumstances of his life that led him to the game show in the first place?

The film is told lush and warm as the Mumbai winds. It is soaking with familiarity because it is a story we know very well. It is Cinderella with an Indian slum boy. A child grows up penniless and abused, has a horrible adolescence, but as a man gains the courage to try to take everything he ever wanted. In a way it is the story of the American Dream set in a different country. Not that I’m complaining. I think that this is a wonderful story, and no matter how cynical I become, watching a story of men or women reaching beyond their station is something magical that I relish seeing done in the right way. And this one hits it out of the park.

Director David Boyle is English, which would account for the English dialog. He is very skilled and highly creative, and his career shows as much. Do I think that Boyle, an Anglo-Saxon with rudimentary knowledge of Indian daily life or culture should have helmed a movie about harsh life in Indian slums? No, perhaps not. But then again, if it were an Indian production in (GASP!!!) subtitles, nobody would have picked it up, and we probably would have never heard this story. So I digress on the shameful state of international pictures in the United States. Boyle really does his best to make us understand the life Jamal is born into, and we understand enough to know that we rich and white should probably stay out of the Juhu slum. But I can’t help but feel like I did not get to the heart of a genuinely fascinating area of the world.

The cast is really what makes this movie. Dev Patel as Jamal is wonderful. Although fully a Brit, he dons a very believable Indian persona that goes far beyond his mere skin color. He is the sensitive, sentimental guy that you just want to root for. Jamal is not sappy, melodramatic, or maudlin at any point. You just feel like he has had a rough time at life but refuses to give up chasing what he desires, and for that you have empathy to stretch for miles. Freida Pinto plays the adult version of Jamal’s childhood love Latika. A former model and host of an international travel show, this is her first feature. Although the character is essentially a constant victim, she nails the role with pathos to spare. It is really surprising that a first-time actress can hit you as hard as she does, but you will be moved by her. Whether or not this is Boyle’s work, considering he has a history of working with young up-and-comers and bringing out the best in them, I do not know. But I hope to see her more often in stronger female roles.

So go check this damn movie out, for crying out loud. If the mountains of nominations were any indication to you, this is one good movie. Do I think it should win for Best Picture this year at the Oscars? Mmm, that”s a tough one. I’ll tell you win I finish my round-up of Best Picture movies. Until then, I’ll just say that it is definitely worth a watch. $9.00 is a small price to pay to get caught up in a warm Indian fable like this. I give Slumdog Millionaire 8 1/2 American game-show knock-offs out of 10.

See you tomorrow, where we discuss Shotgun Stories!