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Slumdog Millionaire (2008) Print E-mail
Thursday, 29 January 2009
ImageJamal Malik (Dev Patel), a slumdog from the streets of Mumbai, is currently one question away from winning the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. He has one lifeline left and he’s using it to call his brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal), the only number in the world that he knows. But instead his old traveling companion and object of desire, Latika (Freida Pinto) picks up. Earlier that day, Jamal was being interrogated by the police, suspected of fraud for getting so far on the show. After all, how could a kid from the slums of India know so much, when doctors, lawyers, and other learned people couldn’t?

Slumdog Millionaire has been this year’s feel good hit, with the film primed to win every major award Hollywood is capable of giving out. I have not heard a single bad thing about the film, not from critics or ye olde average audience member. And given that it’s from Danny Boyle, the spitfire director of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, and 28 Days Later fame, I fully expected the acclaim to be well deserved. However, I should have known that the onus of expectations can be a difficult burden to bear; ultimately I didn’t find Slumdog Millionaire to be as affecting or exciting as I had been lead to believe I would.

First, the good. The movie tracks the progress of Jamal’s life, from being the second child of a single mother in Mubai to a scrappy young adult trying to win it big on television. His life is divided into three phases, and Jamal, Salim, and Latika are all played by actors of the appropriate age in each section. All of these actors are excellent, especially the youngest ones, who have to balance the natural exuberance of childhood with the harsh reality of an overpopulated, under-managed country like India. The middle kids have, I feel, the least to do, and the least impact on the audience (a sentiment Danny Boyle must have shared; during the film’s ending credit sequence, a Bollywood-esque musical number, only the older and youngest actors appear, with the middle ones nowhere to be found). By the time we get to the oldest actors, we do feel as if we know the trio intimately. And I should add, I generally hate child actors, so for me to compliment them means even more than it would coming from someone else.

As with any Danny Boyle film, the directing is electric. Boyle frequently employs a snapshot style to heighten the action. While I don’t think this was entirely successful, it does give the film a unique look. And he knows how to make the most of the landscape of India, showing us whole towns built on trash heaps, Hindu/Muslim conflicts, the Taj Mahal, and more. Boyle doesn’t shy away from showing us the seedier side of India, from the group getting taken by a malicious man who cultivates an army of children beggars, to Jamal scamming tourists at the Taj Mahal and in Mumbai.

The film isn’t all rosy, though. For one thing, the main conceit of the film, that Jamal knows the answers to all of the questions because of his accumulated knowledge throughout his life, is contrived. I should clarify what I mean. For almost every question, Jamal relates a story from his life that directly ties in to it, and thus he knows the answer. Some of the events, such as when he sees his mother killed by a group of angry Hindus and sees a child dressed as Rama as he tries to escape with Salim, are meant to be harrowing and make the audience sympathize with Jamal. Instead, the moments come off as phony, a too convenient plot device by half. And when you’re busy thinking about how improbable it is that the show would ask him just the right questions, and in order with the chronological events of his life, it’s hard to connect with the character in question.

Secondly, even though Jamal and Salim keep moving around, jumping from place to place and scam to scam, the film never really opens up. A few major characters from early on in the film continually come back over and over, making the film, and India, feel uncomfortably small. Given that India has one of the largest human populations of any country on earth, Jamal and Salim should have been having adventures with all kinds of people. Instead, the cast is actually very small. This was probably done to save money, but it hurts the scope of the piece.

There is a moment early on in the picture where Jamal, dying to get the autograph of his favorite film star, jumps into a pool of human feces to escape a locked outhouse. In a way, he does that for the rest of the film, putting himself into horrible situations for a greater prize. His misadventures, as depicted in Slumdog Millionaire, are well performed by a talented collection of child actors, and well shot by director Danny Boyle. But while the film may be a critical darling, and may sweep at the Oscars this year, I couldn’t help feel that a lot of the hype was just that: hype. Slumdog isn’t a bad film, far from it. But it’s not the best film of the year, or even the best film I’ve seen this week.

3 out of 5 Stars

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