Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Sometimes, despite my initial misgivings, a movie will just creep right under my skin. So it was with 2008's sleeper hit, Slumdog Millionaire. Adapted from the novel Q&A Vikas Swarup, it's a film that is visceral, and finally life affirming when it reaches the end.
When the film opens, we see a young man, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), in the rather ungentle hands of the police. And it seems that in the teeming city of Mumbai, the questioning can take a very violent and disturbing turn -- Jamal is slapped around, endures a rather inelegant form of waterboarding, and electric shock at the hands of Srinivas (Saurabh Shukla) and his boss (Irfan Khan). When the police inspector feels that Jamal has been 'softened up' enough, he starts to question him, using the episode of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", a show that is just as popular in India as it is here in the States. What has landed Jamal in the hands of the police is that he is suspected of cheating. What the police want to know is, who or how did he get the answers?
Disingenuously, Jamal answers he just knows. And he starts to recount the many twists and turns that his life has taken him to reach the place he is now. And it's quite a story too...
We see Jamal as a very young child (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar), playing cricket by an airport runway with his older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail). When the police show up, swinging their clubs, the children flee in a merry horde, vanishing into the slums of Jumu, while other children pelt the police with trash. Jamal and Salim don't know any other life, and they are quite happy and content as street urchins. But we also see that the two brothers are very different. In a scene that both sad and surreal, we discover that Salim has a mean streak, as he's hustling outside a public outhouse, and that Jamal is usually his victim. And that's just the start.
As we watch Jamal answering the questions in the show under the mocking gaze and barbs of the host, Prem (Anil Kapoor), we discover how the pair lost their mother in violent riots, and how they are found in a garbage dump by what first appears to be an altruistic gesture from a man. But the reality of that is equally horrifying. But without that encounter, Jamal would have never met Latika (Frieda Pinto), a pretty waifish girl that will prove to be his beacon of hope in a rather dark world.
Filled with colour and music, I was floored by this one. While Slumdog turned out to be the sleeper hit of 2008, I tend to be very wary of films that get gushing enthusiasm, seeing most of it as ever so much hype. As I watched the brothers' stories unfold, I found myself drawn in to these lives of desperate survival in a world that could care less -- and one that most Westerners are completely oblivious of as well. Most of us can't comprehend living such a hand to mouth existence without our comforts of modern living.
But director Danny Boyle and his Indian counterpart, Loveleen Tandan, take a very different approach to all of this. They focus not on the appalling conditions of the slums, but on Jamal's own innate skills at survival and never giving up. It's a grim life, without comfort or education, as Jamal eventually becomes a sort of office boy (he's a chai-wallah, who fetches chai for the workers) in a call-center. But it is his encounters with Latika, who grows up into a beauty, which inspire him. To balance that, there is Salim, who becomes something else entirely.
By the end of the film, I was happily cheering Jamal on, and very impressed by this one. While certain portions of the film are very disturbing to watch -- the scene of mob violence was nearly enough to make me think of turning the film off -- by the time we get to Jamal and Selim's lives as young hustlers at the Taj Mahal, the more visceral elements are gone. However, this film does rate a strong R rating for some of the content and language, so I urge parents to preview this one before letting their children anywhere near it.
One of the better aspects was the use of language here. Dialog shifts from Hindi and English continually, and it gives the film a touch of authenticity and the right feel. If you have difficulty with the accents, go on ahead and flip on the subtitles. Speaking of subtitles, they are offered in English, French and Spanish, but alas, there isn't any alternate language dubbing that is offered. In the version that I saw from Netflix, there wasn't any sort of special features except for an endless array of trailers for other films. Which is a pity, I would have loved to see something on the making of the film, and a bit more about Mumbai.
This one scooped up plenty of awards, with Best Film and Best Director nods at the 2009 Oscars. Most of the awards were for cinematography, editing, music -- one of the real pluses for me -- and the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy. While Dev Patel didn't receive an Oscar for his work, I will wager that he will be someone to notice in the future, if this is an indication of his talent.
This was a film that was worth sitting through, and while I did find some of the content bothersome, it's also one that I can recommend. While it isn't for children or the sensitive, it is a stunning film for the sheer visual display. It's also a very honest film that doesn't turn poverty into noble suffering nor does it patronize the very rich, very vibrant culture and history of India. Instead, it just shows it as it is, and is worth every minute of the time that you spend watching it.
I happily give this one five stars, and say watch it! And there is a very special treat for those who just can't get enough of Bollywood -- but I won't tell you where it is.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age