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.

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August 14, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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