Slumdog Millionaire is, first and foremost, a modern-day fairy tale. It is a love story set in the urban jungle of Mumbai, India.
The story is told in three major timelines — it is narrated in flashbacks from the moment the main character, a young game show contestant, gets interrogated by the police. Thanks to director Danny Boyle and co-director Loveleen Tandan, the film is so cohesively presented that it is not really a cinematic challenge to put the pieces together to be able to understand the whole plot.
The first scenes show an 18-year-old young man named Jamal Malik (played by award-winning actor Dev Patel) being tortured by the police on suspicion of cheating in the Indian version of the popular game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The police inspector (played by Irrfan Khan) has voiced his doubts on how a ‘slumdog’ like Jamal can answer all the difficult questions in the quiz show watched by millions (“What can a slumdog possibly know?”). All these torture-ridden interrogations fall on Jamal’s lap just when he is one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees which, by the way, was not his real motivation in signing up to be a contestant.
But amid the tremendous pressure from the police to admit his guilt, Jamal, who works at a local call center as a tea server, declares his innocence and states in a post-torture state that he did know all the answers. How? Through a series of tough life circumstances as a slum dweller.
The game show is then used as a cinematic means to tell the heartbreaking story of Jamal — his life with his street smart brother Salim as struggling orphans after the death of their mother during a Hindu-Muslim riot in the slums; the random friendship with an orphan girl named Latika, who would later become the one-and-only love of Jamal’s life (his “destiny”); and their unforeseen entanglement with Mumbai’s underworld.
Slumdog Millionaire is a bittersweet story that mirrors what’s really happening in the concrete jungles of poverty-stricken countries like India. It tells the horrible fate of India’s street children, who are literally blinded by gangsters to work as income-generating ‘singing beggars.’ Some of these gangster scenes are graphic, and this may well be the reason why the film has garnered an R rating.
But true to its fairy tale calling — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again, boys finds girl, girl runs away with an old gangster, boy joins a popular TV game show to reunite with his dream girl, boy eventually gets the girl and the 20 million rupees — the film ends on a high note, with a Bollywood-type of dance scene staged at the train station no less.
Overall, the performance of the actors was superb. But Freida Pinto as the oldest Latika could have internalized more her character; her acting was a bit flat and wooden. Credit goes to Dev Patel, who was perfect for the role of the oldest Jamal (there were three Jamals in the film just as there were three Salims and three Latikas). He did a great job delivering his English lines with a believable Hindi accent — and being consistent with that to boot — considering that he was born and bred in London (incidentally, one-third of the dialogues were in Hindi, with some English subtitles).
The supporting cast members, especially the child actors, were excellent in fleshing out their respective roles. They were simply natural in their portrayals. Well done, boys!
The award-winning film directing was at its finest. One can just imagine how terribly hard it was to shoot on location, right in the slums of Mumbai. But Boyle and his team were able to pull it off, with a lot of support from the locals, it seems.
The film shots were masterfully done — great cinematography there — and the editing was quite crisp, giving the film a tight feel.
British screenwriter Simon Beaufoy of The Full Monty fame did an excellent job writing the film adaptation of the Boeke Prize-winning and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-nominated novel Q and A by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup. His ability to weave all those mini tales into one whole package showed great craftmanship in the screenwriting arena. The script was well thought out.
If the low-budgeted Slumdog Millionaire has already reaped major film awards at the Golden Globes (i.e. Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Original Score), and is up for 10 Academy Awards in key categories (including Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Writing for Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Musical Score, among other things), it’s because it really deserves all this recognition, which it is getting right now in huge doses.
Those who watch the film will leave the movie theaters with a little piece of India, the rough edges as well as the ‘Bollywoody’ musical elements. You will love those cheesy dance moves at the train station!
Slumdog Millionaire, with its universal appeal, reconfirms the power of true love which persists, defies all odds, and hopes for the best — come what may. In this sense, it’s a feel-good movie. Go see it. (YouTube video courtesy of FoxSearchlight Pictures)