Thursday, February 05, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Of course, I had to see Slumdog Millionaire. The buzz is enormous. I try to avoid reading reviews of movies I plan to write about but it was hard with Slumdog Millionaire. I saw the movie at the E Street Cinema in Washington, DC on Super Bowl Tuesday night. By the time, I watched the movie, I had seen the Golden Globe Awards and heard some of the criticism of the movie.

You are introduced to the main character, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), as a contestant on the Indian "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" He has gained local fame by answering several questions correctly as the jackpot increases. TV host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) is getting increasingly irritated by the young man's run of luck. At the end of the segment, Jamal is arrested and taken to a police station where he is tortured. Prem believes Jamal is cheating and wants his confession. But, as the torture continues, Jamal does not confess. He is adamant that he knew the answers. So, the story unfolds in flashbacks to his childhood where his various experiences introduce him to varied bits of trivia.

Many of the flashbacks are shot in the vast Mumbai slums. Rapid action scenes of young Jamal and his brother, Salim, follow their youthful exploits including losing their mother in a religious riot as Hindus attack and burn parts of the slum where many Muslims live. After losing their mother, the boys find a variety of ways to survive. They serve tea on trains until they are thrown off. They beg. They pick trash. Mixed in are a few days in a classroom. Then a bus arrives and carts them off to a phony orphanage camp. At first, they are happy because they get fed. But, then they must beg for the leader, Maman, much like Oliver in Oliver Twist. Then, Salim, Jamal's brother witnesses Maman mutilate one of the children. He rushes his brother and their new found friend Latika out of the camp but only Jamal and Salim escape.

Jamal had fallen in love with Latika and never forgot her as he and Salim continue their efforts to survive. Bits of humor flit through the scenes such as when the boys set up some American tourists as they tour the slum with their cameras. While they are shooting, the boys' cohorts strip the car. When the tourists return, the young boys dash off saying, "You wanted to see the real India, well this is it."

For me the turning point in the story is while searching for Latika, Salim and Jamal encounter Maman and face capture again. Salim shots Maman and only the boys escape again. Jamal had learned that Maman was using Latika to attract older men.

As the flashbacks return to Jamal in the contestant's seat facing the game show host, you can feel his discomfort and his resilience.

As a young man, Jamal had become a chai wallah (tea assistant) in a call center. There he finds his brother's phone number and mets Salim again. Salim has become a criminal. But, Salim leads Jamal to Latika. She had become the mistress of a crime boss. Jamal tries to convince her to leave him. She asks what will we live on. He says, "love." He learns she likes the show "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" because it is escapism for her.

Jamal applies to become a contestant on the show because he believes Latika will see him.

Prem accepts the police's belief that Jamal is not cheating and the show continues. Now, there is an undercurrent of tension between the two.

Many think this movie is like a Bollywood movie. In some ways it is and in some ways it is not. The story is not new. Orphaned brothers who struggle to survive and take divergent paths in adulthood is a common Bollywood theme. Conflict between the protagonists is the crux of the movie where the bad brother eventually saves the good brother from harm. A similar Bollywood movie Ram Janne, features two protagonists who are not brothers, they are orphans who help each other survive. One orphan, Ram Janne, becomes a criminal, the other, Muli, runs an orphanage.

Everyone got so excited about the dance number at the end of the movie. In a real Bollywood movie, there are as many as six song and dance numbers sprinkled throughout the story.

In many Bollywood movies, I am left with questions, the same holds true with Slumdog Millionaire. I wondered what made the two boys different since they had similar experiences. Also, I thought that Salim's character was not shown in a favorable light. He was the older brother and had protected Jamal many many times. When faced with an adult criminal, Maman, Salim took the only choice he felt he had when he killed him. I felt that Salim could have taken another path in life rather than the one the movie portrayed.

Also, I never felt that the adult Latika's character reflected the abuse, loneliness, dreariness of her life experiences. It made the reunion with Jamal seem shallow.

The child actors who were in most of the movie really deserve alot more credit than they got at any of the awards ceremonies or film festivals. They were the real stars.

There is controversy over how the children were treated. Did they get paid enough? How did acting in the movie affect their lives? These are the questions people are asking of the movie producers and directors. The producers did pay the children more than three times an adult wages, created a trust fund for them when they completed school, and found a school for the children and are paying for their education.

Poverty is a reality worldwide. Sadly, the lives of these children will probably not change much in the future.
Sadly, I believe most of the controversy over Slumdog Millionaire is based on jealousy. Indians are angry that it was not a Bollywood movie that is making such news but a movie made by an outsider. Bollywood movies often contain violence and scenes of poverty and criminality. On the positive side, let's hope that the world will now take an interest in Bollywood movies.
Director: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Producer: Christian Colson
Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy based on novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup
Cast: Jamal Mallik, Prem Kumar, Freida Pinto, Irrfan Khan, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (young Salim), Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (young Jamal), Rubiana Ali (young Latika) and more.

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