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January 28, 2009 > Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire - A Celebration of Human Spirit

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire - A Celebration of Human Spirit

By Joe Samagond

Set in Mumbai, Slumdog Millionaire (2009) is adapted from Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup's award-winning novel "Q & A." It is a strange and pleasing combination of "Oliver Twist," "The Three Musketeers" and Bollywood extravagance. It is the saga - mainly in English, with some subtitled Hindi - of an abjectly poor Muslim boy, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) who pulls himself up by his brains, and gets the opportunity to become a millionaire on the Indian version of the popular TV quiz show - "Who wants to be a Millionaire?" Director Danny Boyle adds fine touches to a story of star-crossed romance, pulling out stops that you wouldn't think anyone would have the nerve to attempt anymore. But Boyle has been nothing if not bold with this film.

Jamal, the slumdog turns out to be an impoverished 18-year-old orphan who works hurriedly serving tea to harried telephone call center operators. We see Jamal in two places almost at once in the film's cross-cut opening. On one hand, he is on stage on the "Millionaire" telecast being needled by arrogant show host Prem (Anil Kapoor). Yet on the night before the final telecast where he will face the final question before he can win the jackpot, he is also in a police station subjected to some very rough interrogation because Prem cannot believe that such a lowly, uneducated person could have honestly answered all the questions posed to him. He must have cheated!

To get back on the show for the final question - by explaining to the dubious police inspector (Irfan Khan) how he came to know what he does - Jamal has to tell him (and us) the story of his life, a story where, in true Frank Capra fashion, chance, luck, suffering and street smarts all play major parts. Jamal's companion in most things is his older brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal) who is a hard-headed cynic where Jamal is a passionate dreamer.

Because Jamal's and Salim's lives are full of incident despite their youth, it takes three actors each to tell their full stories. And each of them does an admirable job. As Jamal relates the specific incidents that led to his being able to answer each of the quiz show questions, he is simultaneously telling several stories, tales of the link between brothers, the unending battle with poverty, the lure and pitfalls of crime and the rapid modernization of India. But he is also telling a romantic story, a tale of love at first sight with the beautiful Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), a love that has to fight against all manner of disappointments and despair.

To make this kind of story modern, Boyle and his team, especially cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantel and editor Chris Dickens, have told it in the jazziest way possible, breaking things up into numerous then and now sections and making the dark elements much darker than would have been the case in Hollywood movie. Zigging to and fro, Slumdog Millionaire whips these familiar raw ingredients into a feverish masala, at once touristy and something deeper, that drenches the screen in the sights and sounds of modern Mumbai: Mischievous children scamper through mazes of corrugated-tin rooftops; crowds of washerwomen cleanse extravagantly colored fabrics in outdoor baths; eardrum-rattling traffic chokes the smoggy streets; trains clatter noisily into busy stations.

That sort of hyped-up aesthetic can quickly turn wearying, as it has in several of Boyle's less successful previous ventures, but here it is a fountain of continuous energy. "I am at the center of the center," Salim tells Jamal as they gaze out over the landscape of their former slum, now an oasis of skyward-reaching glass-and-steel towers. If I have one complaint it is this - as someone who grew up in Mumbai, a rich and cosmopolitan city with a diverse spectrum of life, I felt this film dwelt heavily on the darker aspects of this lively city. But that is movie maker's prerogative.
Then, just when you think he has pulled out all the stops, Boyle proves to have one more trick left up his sleeve: after the movie ends, there breaks out a joyous musical number composed by A.R. Rahman that sends everybody out of the theater feeling like a winner. Despite its elements of brutality, this is a buoyant ode to life, and a movie to celebrate.

Rated: R for some violence, disturbing images and language.
Runtime: 120 minutes

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