19 November, 2008
Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Fairy tales have always been pretty bleak, I think because you need a grim landscape from which the goodness can emerge. Morality and virtue aren't that interesting if there's no evil to oppose them. Hence the cackling wicked witch and her winged monkeys, who made dusty Auntie Em and her crumbling wooden home seem all the more comforting. Or Bluebeard's bloody wife corpses hanging in his private chamber--maybe we shouldn't be spying on our loved ones, maybe ignorance is bliss, or whatever the point of that story is.
Charles Dickens, writing from the poorhouse in industrial England, loved depicting the humanity that feel somewhere in the cracks between the Victorian stuffed shirts and the grubby-fingered lowest common denominators. Oliver Twist, used and abused by both the bumbling bleeding hearts and the miserly pickpocket masterminds, did the best with his meager resources and scrappy courage, and in the end his basic goodness mingled with guiding providence and he triumphed over prostitution and poverty.
Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, based on the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup, is a Dickensian fable where a huge portion of predestined luck, an underdog commitment to always doing right, and an ability to suffer the system and make it work allows impoverished orphan Jamal Malik (newcomer Dev Patel) to rise above his brutal, oppressive surroundings. More so than ever in Dickens, however, these surroundings are gritty, stark, and disturbing, with none of the comic caricature that surrounded the Scrooges and Fagins his work.
Of course, Boyle's no stranger to horrific morality tales--recall the eye-gougings and blood splatterings in 28 Days Later or the blue baby in Trainspotting. Nor is he unfamiliar with warmhearted family films, as Millions proved. Slumdog Millionaire mixes both, opening with the film's skinny, teenaged protagonist hanging by his wrists, soaked in sweat, about to be electrocuted by two spittle-spewing interrogators.
Irfan Khan, as the head police inspector, is convinced that Jamal, an assistant at a call center whose primary job responsibility consists of serving out cups of chai, an orphan with no education, no fixed address, and no recorded background, has been cheating during the smash-hit game show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" (the Indian version). Jealousy is a strong motivator; how could a poor urchin who's done nothing with his brain all his life be so close to earning so much money when doctors and lawyers and educated, wealthy people have all failed short? How could an Indian boy who doesn't know that Gandhi's face is on the 100 rupee bank note know that Benjamin Franklin is on an American 100 dollar bill?
The bulk of the movie, of course, consists of flashbacks that reveal the twists of fate and important moments that have guided Jamal's tortuous, torturous life--rising literally from a shit hole, escaping with his brother and a pretty girl named Latika from a race riot that kills his mother, living in vast garbage heaps, panhandling on trains, perfecting con games, and falling prey to trustworthy, smooth-talking adults out to destroy their wards. India may be post-caste by the time of the film (in the late 90s through 2006), yet society seems bent on keeping the downcast down: Hindu racists storm Muslim slums, police target poor suspects, and an angel-faced savior toting ice cold Coca Cola recruits an army of ruthless eight-year-olds to serve as deformed panhandlers on tourist-busy boulevards. Some of the handicaps are easily faked; others he inflicts himself, since in this world "blind singers earn double." Money costs and you have to earn your pay, even arbitrarily. No boy singer gets money just for a beautiful voice; the eyes have to be taken first. Jamal can't just answer game show questions correctly. First his head must be violently ducked in a bucket of water.
So when one of the giveaway first questions ponders India's national motto--"Truth alone triumphs"--Jamal falters. Lies and cons have saved him more than honesty, and having seen what he's seen he knows the reality behind "Money alone triumphs." He uses a lifeline and asks the audience, which overwhelmingly knows the answer despite his ignorance. Jamal's success depends on luck and true life experience, not anything he's read. His success is also independently won; when a trustworthy source offers him an opportunity to actually cheat, he struggles with his options, having learned long ago that in his India there are no trustworthy strangers.
More interesting than the theme behind his rise on the show--that experience fosters a more worthwhile, meaningful, and memorable intelligence than a memorized education--is his reason for being on the show. Having never known the benefits of money yet having witnessed its destructive power in the life of his ladder-climbing gangster brother, Jamal doesn't particularly want the twenty million rupees he stands to win, probably doesn't even know what he'd do with it. What he desires is more human and more valuable--a chance to be seen by the love of his life, Latika, on the most-watched show in India. Fate has brought them together and torn them apart many times. Crime and money have cursed and fooled and abandoned both of them. With his shy face on the small screen long enough, he might just be able to reconnect with the only person he's always trusted, loved, and been able to depend on, the most beautiful girl he's ever seen, something her billionaire thug husband can acquire but never own, something unsullied by the filth and money surrounding everything.
Jamal escapes his interrogation when the inspector realizes, "You can't be a liar. You're too truthful." Latika escapes her sexual hostage situation when an important friend realizes that more is at stake than sex and money. And in the end a Dickensian happy ending is earned. It's not one that's incredibly deep--all in all, Jamal and Latika hardly know each other beyond their faces--but its purity shines amongst all the grit.
The final question is predictable to anyone paying attention to the details. What happens after the question is a touching surprise.
Boyle has earned another success with a fast-paced, pleasurable, and meaningful story. Dev Patel's acting is solid as the skinny, cute underdog, always prepared for the attack but never quite knowing how to prevent it, staring at a bright world at once swathed in color and grime, soaked in a sun that illuminated while it swelters and blisters. The music by M.I.A. also adds a nice touch, with her songs that are simultaneously fun and serious.
Slumdog Millionaire is a fable with messages and outcomes that are a little too good to be true and a little too sweet for the most cynical of us, but vivid, on-location shooting and top-notch direction add just the punch to make it rise above.
d: Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan w: Simon Beaufoy
(Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor)