Update: Slumdog Millionaire nominated for 10 Academy Awards! Go to official Oscar site here.
I settled into my seat in the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park, Illinois expecting to see an interesting film set in India. I knew it was the story of an indigent young man from Mumbai who has a reversal of fortune through his performance on a television game show. I didn’t expect Slumdog Millionaire to be the serious and powerful film experience it turned out to be.
We are spectators, sometimes voyeurs, in the lives of Jamal (Dev Patel), his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and Latika (Freida Pinto), a girl they encounter purely by chance. After a brutal episode of communal violence, the boys lose their mother and are on the run completely alone, save for Latika. They set up temporary residence in a city dump and are lured to an orphanage home by two men with cold bottles of Coca-Cola. The men teach the children to beg for coins in the street and both Jamal and Salim become proficient. Soon they discover that some of the children become disabled at the hand of these men and escape in the night on a train. Although they try, they fail in their effort to bring Latika along.
The boys learn the grifter trade quickly and steal from tourists who visit the Taj Mahal. They get in deeper and deeper, when something happens that cannot be undone in their effort to reclaim Latika. The brothers’ relationship sours as Salim asserts his place as the elder and casts out Jamal to be with the girl. Over time Jamal finds Latika and his brother again, but is unable to pry her away from life in the underbelly. Jamal lands an opportunity to be a contestant on the most popular TV show in the country, Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He believes that she will be watching, and might make a getaway on her own.
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) draws us into Jamal’s life though the questions that are asked on the show. Each question triggers a scene from Jamal’s life that advances the story as well as provides the answer to the question. Is it luck or fate that these particular questions are chosen? Jamal progresses further than any one ever has and is arrested on suspicion of cheating. The police inspector walks him through every question via a video tape and asks him to explain how he would know the answer. Jamal has a believable story and is released to return to the show for one more all or nothing question.
Mr. Boyle captures the frenetic movement of India during day, night, bright color and muted darkness. Movement and music are his grammar. We see Jamal’s tin-topped slums transform into soaring high rises as India takes its place on the world stage. This financial progressiveness is what gives Jamal his fairy tale chance.
The performances are strong where they need to be; Jamal, Latika and the game show host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) are the pivotal characters and do a splendid job of keeping the audience guessing and propelling the story forward. There are an array of locations and settings, all well lensed and nicely edited into a rich quilt of a story.
Slumdog Millionaire took four Golden Globe awards, including Best Motion Picture (drama) and Best Director. However, I haven’t seen it overwhelmingly show up on critic’s Oscar nomination predictions, which puzzles me. Perhaps it may be the fact that in the end it’s a love story. Or that Mr Boyle enlists the two stars and a train station full of extras to perform a dance number over the credits. Not sure why that’s there except maybe the filmmakers thought they needed to release some of the pressure they built up along the way.
Recommended for serious filmgoers who appreciate international movies. Visit the official Slumdog Millionaire web site here. Buy the soundtrack. It’s fast, loud and highly repeatable.
Photo credits: Fox Searchlight Pictures.