A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 167 – Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire – August 14th, 2010

Working where I do, I am treated to many and varied opinions about every item that crosses my desk. For every patron who loves a book or movie there’s another who hates it. There are rare exceptions to this, but it truly is an excellent example of just how personal taste is. One very opinionated patron told me in no uncertain terms that this movie was horrible and should be banned for being such filth. And to be sure, there’s dirt and grime and blood and sweat and shit and pain and nudity and torture and fear and poverty and desperation in the movie, but it’s certainly not filth.

I suppose the term “filth” is subjective. But I wouldn’t use it to describe this movie. I’ve seen filth. It tends not to have any redeeming qualities, whereas this movie is brimming with them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the movie is at least partially about redemption for horrible things. Redemption, determination and passion are at the heart of the movie, and those are certainly worthwhile themes that make all of the difficult parts worth watching.

There’s no easy way to break the three themes apart. We meet our main character, Jamal, while he is being tortured and interrogated under suspicion that he has cheated in a game show. He’s a teenager from the slums of Mumbai who serves chai at a call center. And yet he’s on the verge of winning the top prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? People got suspicious. And so the game show becomes a gimmick, taking us back to Jamal’s childhood. As he is asked each question more of his life is revealed, showing us how he knew every answer. It is, of course, unbelievable luck on his part. But only in the modern day. His childhood was full of horrible things like his mother being killed by a mob and he and his brother, Salim, narrowly escaping a gangster who was blinding children to make them more pitiful (and profitable) beggars. Along the way he meets and loses a girl named Latika a few times. The three leads’ paths diverge eventually around the middle, then meet back up again when they’re in their teens. Just in time to build up the climax where Jamal finds out that Salim is working for another gangster and Latika is trapped as the gangster’s property. Jamal goes on the show because he knows Latika watches it. He continues to win because of the life he has led. But it would all mean nothing if Salim didn’t step in to get Latika out.

There is plenty of all three themes in there. Jamal is certainly at the core of the film, driven by a need to make a life that isn’t where he came from but also isn’t like his brother’s, built on crime and the pain of others. He needs to find Latika, whom he’s clearly loved for years. Dev Patel does an admirable job with the role of Jamal in the present day, aware of how much he doesn’t know, but also unwilling to let that stop him from trying. Samir plays a counterpoint to Jamal, always looking for the fastest and best way to keep both himself and his little brother alive, even if it means sacrificing others. Madhur Mittal gets little screen time as the present day Samir, but I believed every moment he had as the conflicted older brother, trying to come out on top but knowing what he’d done to get there. And then there’s Latika, who I wish we’d gotten to see more of, but I understand that her brief appearances serve to make her that much more unattainable, which drives the tension in the plot up a notch or two. Freida Pinto takes the time she has on screen and the few lines she’s given and we know exactly what her life is like, trapped with Samir’s boss, Javed, and doing what she has to in order to survive, because it should go without saying that any escape attempt would end in death.

But that’s all just the present day. The flashbacks going back into Jamal, Samir and Latika’s childhoods are beautifully crafted to carry us from point to point. The children playing them at their various ages did fantastic jobs, all of them. You know that Jamal made it through, and given Samir’s attitude, you suspect he did too, because he’s so tenacious. But Latika? What of her? When she’s left behind after the boys escape the first time I knew precisely where she was going to end up, and I was right. I hate being right sometimes.

Seeing as I am most definitely not familiar with India and the various cultural influences that have gone into the making of this film, I cannot speak to its accuracy. There are horrible scenes of violence and abuse, both in flashbacks showing the main characters as children and in the modern day interrogation of Jamal. I wish I could say I’m sure they’re made up, but I do know that no matter where one is in the world, there are people willing to do despicable things to other people for a whole host of reasons. As to the specifics, I can’t say one way or the other. The when and where and how aren’t things I can really remark on. But they who and the why? People with money, people with power, and people without either? Those things could translate to so many countries. It makes the story painfully universal while the cinematography and actors and script take that universality and point it towards India.

All that being said, I think the movie truly celebrates its location. Yes, we’re shown some truly unsettling and horrifying things. But as I said, there are unsettling and horrifying things everywhere, and to try and claim that there is anywhere entirely free of them is to admit to gross ignorance. What makes it a celebration is that there is a sense that Jamal is really a mascot for the people who watch him on the show. Near the end are scenes of people gathering to watch, and cheering when he wins. The people in power might not want him to win, but everyone else does, and those are the ones who matter to me. There’s the soundtrack, and so many scenes of Mumbai, both serving to pull the viewer into the setting, inviting us to be there with everyone, watching to see if Jamal can win, and find Latika. Of course it’s fantastical, the way everything works out in the end and Jamal’s life can be told through the questions he’s asked. It borders on magical realism a bit there. But it’s meant to be a little unrealistic, a little over the top, a little fantastical. It’s the sort of movie you just have to run with, and it’s beautiful and sad and painful and magical. And most certainly not filth.

August 14, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Slumdog Millionaire

August 14, 2010

Slumdog Millionaire

Can you believe that it has taken this long for me to get around to watching Slumdog Millionaire? It boggles the mind, really. How could I work in a video store and never watch this beautiful, touching, terrifying and joyful masterpiece? It’s not like I didn’t know exactly what kind of movie it is. I knew before putting this in what the general gist of the plot was, and because I had talked with customers about it I knew most of the more powerful plot points. And furthermore I absolutely love Trainspotting, so I know that Danny Boyle’s directorial style works with my sensibilities. I bought this movie when it first came out on DVD (I think I probably reserved it ahead of time and bought it on launch day) and ever since it’s been sitting patiently, still in its plastic wrap, for me to watch it.

I doubt that I can really say anything in my review that hasn’t been said a hundred times before about this movie. I suppose I’ll start out by saying that I don’t really consider it a Bollywood film. Certainly it takes place in India, and it has homages to Bollywood such as the closing credits, but it’s no more Bollywood than is Darjeeling Limited. Several years ago Amanda and I were living just outside of Philadelphia and our favorite television station was WYBE (now known as MiND TV.) It was a non-PBS affiliated independent television station, and it had a wonderfully eclectic programming schedule. We mostly watched it for the Dr. Who re-runs, but it had all sorts of other wonderful things. Including the “Asian Movie” which was on, as I recall, every Saturday around 10AM. Sometimes it would be Anime. Sometimes it would be Kung-Fu. Sometimes it would be serious-minded Chinese, Japanese or Korean cinema. And sometimes it would have people in colorful outfits having sword fights, then dancing to sitar music. I always wanted to watch these authentic Bollywood imports, but somehow never seemed to have the time. I regret that. It’s why I so very much want to expand the borders of our collection to include more things I’m not familiar with.

Still, just because this isn’t authentic Bollywood doesn’t mean that it is any less interesting as a film. The movie uses the fascinating scenery of India as not just the background and inspiration for its story but as a character in the film. Sure, the country is not portrayed in a very nice light. The movie is all about orphaned children from the slums of Mumbai. They are chased by police, religious fanatics and underworld gangs. So there’s a lot of footage of children running through narrow streets or subsisting on piles of garbage. There is much in the movie that is unpleasant, and I cannot really judge how accurate a portrayal it is. For me, a privileged foreigner, it seems authentic, and it is certainly the driving force for much of the movie. The India of Slumdog Millionaire is a brutal, crime-filled place, but also a place filled with hope and possibilities.

I love this movie for two primary reasons. First of all is how well constructed the story is. The film rapidly cuts between three related stories. In the present our hero Jamal Malik is being interrogated by a pair of police officers who believe that he has been somehow cheating to get the answers as he appeared on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. This flashes back to Jamal on the program as he is asked increasingly difficult questions. This in turn flashes even further back to tell the story of Malik, his brother Salim, and a young girl who joins the two of them when they are orphaned, Latika. Every question Malik gets asked, you see, has its answer in his past. So the interrogation and the television show lead us through his memories of his life, and slowly begin to reveal why he is on the program at all, and how it is that he’s able to answer every question correctly. It’s a great concept and it’s extremely well done. I found myself being caught up in the adventure of Malik’s life, carried along by the movie just as he is.

The other thing I loved about the movie is it’s tone. As I said before it is ugly and brutal in places, but it also has a hopeful feel. In the end it’s a story about hope and love and destiny. You can’t help cheering along as it approaches its inevitable climax. It’s a movie that makes you want to jump around for joy and it left me with tears of joy streaming down my face. That, in my opinion, is a sign of a great movie.

I’ll admit that I didn’t really watch this movie tonight with an eye towards a detailed review. I got caught up in the experience of it and wasn’t feeling terribly analytical. Suffice to say I loved the movie. I don’t really know why it took so long for me to watch it, because I knew before I even put it in that I was going to love it. Even if it didn’t have enough dancing in it for me.

August 14, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment