SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE By Pierre Beemans (Film Review)
Just at a time when the theatres and video stores seem to be treating us to one long stream of inane teen-sex comedies, morbid slasher films, ghost-and-demon dramas and unbearably (and interminably) cute cartoons dressed up as feature films, along comes one that really makes one enjoy watching movies again. Now, if only they can do something about the reek of greasy french fries and oily popcorn that the customers stuff themselves with, the theatres themselves might become equally enjoyable.
On the movie side, I am talking about Slumdog Millionaire (produced by Danny Boyle), the story of an orphan street urchin who rises from the squalid slums of Bombay (now Mumbai) to become the unlikely finalist in Indias biggest and richest TV quiz show, Who wants to be a Millionaire? It has everything: a childhood romance that endures despite all odds, a brothers treachery and redemption, gangsters, child abuse, money, humour, suspense, little people against the system, a shy but indomitable hero and his achingly beautiful heroine. Plus actors light years above and ahead of what Hollywood offers these days, along with settings in an India that tourists never see or suspect.
The hero is Jamal, an unassuming twenty-something chaiwallah (tea waiter) from the teeming poverty-stricken underclass who carry Indias economic miracle on their backs. Somehow, he has made it to the semi-finals of the quiz show by correctly answering questions that a person of his background should never get and is lined up for the final million-dollar (well, 20,000,000 rupees, actually) prize the following day. We meet him as he is being tortured in a police station (on orders from the quiz host) to reveal how he must have cheated to come up with the answers in the first seven rounds. As Jamal painfully confesses to a bent-but-not-rotten inspector, each answer corresponds to a lesson learned at some twist or turn in his life, from the murder of his mother by a Hindu mob in one of Bombays periodic anti-Muslim riots to his experiences conning American tourists at the Taj Mahal. Running through it all is Latika, the orphan girl who has been his lifelong friend and unrequited love and Selim, the brother who alternates between betraying Jamal and saving his skin.
The movie takes us through each of these events flashing back to his childhood/youth and forward to the TV stage and the real life struggle to free Latika from the grip of the boss of the Bombay mafia. At each stage, from infancy through to adulthood, Jamal, Salim and Latika are played by different actors - all of whom imbue their roles with strength and authenticity. It is a masterpiece of coherent casting, acting and directing.
There are some pretty raw scenes of life in the slums and underworld of Bombay, such as the anti-Muslim pogrom (reminiscent of the massacres in Gujarat a few years ago), children being picked up off the garbage dumps by criminal gangs masquerading as orphanage operators, to be trained and - if necessary - maimed as beggars and prostitutes, teeming slums with sewage canals for swimming pools and laundry tubs. But there are also superbly funny scenes which it would spoil to describe beforehand, with none of the slapstick overacting or wink-wink innuendo that we are showered with in American (or Canadian) movies and TV.
Slumdog Millionaire is a film to lean back and enjoy, as drama, as acting and as social commentary. It is hard to imagine it not being a top contender for the best foreign film Oscar. Not to be missed when it comes to a theatre near you.
Postscript: Pierre was right, in fact the film won an incredible eight Oscars in 2008, including Best Picture.
Tags: Pierre Beemans