Friday, January 2, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

When I reviewed Gran Torino, I said that when a great character and a great story converge, you have a great movie. Slumdog Millionaire does it, in spades. Three actors come together to make a great character, and two directors and two writers build us a great story, giving us a great movie. Go see it. Then come back and read this.

The story is a classic rags to riches, or "rags to Rajah" as the game show host puts it, about a street kid named Jamal who ends up winning the top prize on India's "Who wants to be a millionaire?" program. When we meet him he is being interrogated for cheating, because what could a nothing like a slumdog know? Well, it's that sort of film where every question he answers takes us back to a time in his life, and it's done masterfully. We meet Jamal as a child with his older brother Salim, scampering around the shanty towns of Mumbai and thriving in misery as kids are wont to do.


There is tragedy, and there is joy. If the story were just depicting street life alone, you could just watch Salaam Bombay! but this is much more. Jamal is good-hearted and giving, while his brother Salim is more self-serving, and a bully. They clash but stick together, soon picking up a third "Musketeer," a girl named Latika. We learn some of the dark secrets behind the begging children of Mumbai; fagins and their ways, gangsters, tourist scammers. As they grew up into young men, their plight became reminiscent of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, as they work in kitchens that pour tap water into used bottles and glue the caps back on, and tell tall tales to tourists at the Taj Mahal.

It's not all fun and games; there is tragedy, loss, division and unrequited love but I don't want to give away the details. It keeps the perfect note throughout, and is definitely one of the best films of the year. A classic story with a near-perfect cast- older Salim is weak at times- but masterfully made modern and engaging, by Danny Boyle at the top of his game. There are so many fine touches. Boyle's direction is light-hearted and flashy at times, even in the drab colors of the slums. The subtitles come out of people's mouths like word balloons, but most of the film is in English. It gets the full Bollywood treatment with a dance number at the end, and some of the best designed credits I've ever seen.
Every great story has a boy, a gun and a girl.

Dev Patel plays older Jamal as the vessel of all these experiences, both wounded and idealistic, self-assured and humble; he's a mere chaiwalla, or coffee go-fer, but he's got sharp eyes and ears and makes his own luck. The younger versions, and their compatriots, are natural and never seem amateur. The story has the great emotion of an epic of the golden era made urban. Don't hesitate to go see this, it's one of the best movies of the year. Boyle's childhood masterpiece Millions crossed with Salaam Bombay!, and a lot more. A great soundtrack, too. It's based on Vikas Swarup's novel, which I'll probably pick up soon.

5 lamb kormas out of 5



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