Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Movie – Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire is an absolutely terrific film that swept through the Oscars in 2009.  It won 8 of the 10 awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture.  And one of the awards it didn’t win – Best Song – it lost to itself when the other song from the film, “Jai Ho”, took home the Oscar.  It wasn’t just the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who loved it.  It is only the second film in history to sweep the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay awards at the Golden Globes (Hollywood Foreign Press), BAFTAs (the “British Oscars”), and Academy Awards.  The other film to do it?  Schindler’s List.

Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) was not someone that people would probably have thought of when it came to directing what is essentially a “foreign film”, but he definitely changed people’s minds when they saw the result.  He shot the movie in India, with a predominantly Indian cast and crew.  He even employed an Indian co-director to ensure things were more authentic.  The only big part in the film not played by a native Indian was that of the oldest Jamal, who was played by newcomer Dev Patel, a British man of Indian heritage.

The casting of the three youngest characters did present Boyle with a problem in that he felt their acting was better when they were using their native Hindi, rather than when they tried acting in English.  He finally made the decision that the performance was more important and the result is that about 20 percent of the film is in Hindi dialogue with subtitles.  Conventional wisdom says that this would kill the movie at the box office because no one wants to read subtitles.  Conventional wisdom was wrong.  It made over 140 million dollars in the U.S. alone.

The movie has three major parts to it, each of them presented in flashback while Jamal is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.  As he is asked questions, he thinks back on events in his life that are connected with the answers.  He doesn’t seem too concerned with the prize money, though.  As the movie goes on, you begin to find out the real reason he is on the show.

The movie opens with Jamal in police custody, being beaten in order to get a confession of cheating.  He has completed the first day on the show and he has answered questions that they assume no person of his low standing (a “slumdog”) could ever possibly have known.  He is only one answer away from winning the top prize of 20 million rupees.  As someone says, doctors, lawyers, and scholars have all been on the show and none of them has gotten as far as he has.  He must be cheating.  He tells them his story so that they can see how he learned the answers.

When they were little Jamal and his older brother Salim lived in the slums beside the airport in Bombay (now Mumbai).  To say that the people in these slums are living in bad conditions is like saying that Bill Gates has a little bit of money.  Tensions are running high between the Hindus and the Muslims and a riot claims the life of their mother and ends up driving them out of their neighborhood.  A girl that is their age wants to take shelter from the rain with them.  Her name is Latika.  Salim protests, but Jamal allows her to join them.  They end up getting picked up by people who take them to a camp for orphans.  Unfortunately, this camp is not run by very good people and the three have to try to get away.  The brothers get separated from Latika.

The scenes then move to when the brothers are around 13.  They have stayed together and have survived by hustling tourists, stealing food on trains, working in restaurants, etc.  Salim has started doing small jobs for the local crime boss.  Jamal discovers that Latika is essentially owned by the people who took them as orphans.  She is going to be sold by them.  He plans to rescue her, but will Salim let Jamal do this, especially if it means Jamal will be risking his life?

The third set of scenes are when all three are now in their late teens.  The events in the middle part of the film drove the brothers apart.  Jamal is now a “chaiwalah” – a person who delivers tea – at a call center in Mumbai.  One day he uses the database at the call center to try to find Latika and Salim.  He’s not successful with her, but finds Salim and the two reconnect.  Salim (Madhur Mittal) is now a lieutenant for the crime boss.  Jamal finds out from Salim that Latika (Freida Pinto) is now the kept woman of the crime boss.  He gets Salim to let him see Latika.  

Jamal cannot convince Latika to run away with him.  Both of them have cared for each other ever since he first helped her as a child, but she is too scared of the crime boss.  They are discovered and Latika is taken away where Jamal cannot get to her.  Salim will not help him.  How can he get a message to her?  Can the two ever reunite?  Will Jamal be able to convince the police he wasn’t cheating?  If allowed back on the show, can he win the big money prize, and does he even care?  Why does he keep risking his winnings – money that is far more than he would ever see in his lifetime?

Director Boyle does not shy away from some of the worst aspects of the country.  At one point a police officer beats a child in front of tourists and the child angrily yells to the tourists that if they wanted to see the real India then they just did.  Poverty and crime are hardly exclusive to India, of course, but they are subjects that tend to be glossed over when any country is promoting itself to outsiders.  The oldest versions of the two brothers even reflect on the parts of the new, modern Mumbai that have risen from the slums that they lived in as children.

The film received some negative press afterwards when people questioned if the youngest children had been used and abandoned by the film production.  Director Boyle had to explain that he had set up funds for them to pay for their housing and education.  It was the execution of those plans that hit a few snags and that garnered the bad press.

That’s outside of the movie, though.  I really don’t have anything negative to say about the film itself.  One thing I did notice, and that I’ve seen others list as a negative, is that it is a big coincidence that each question Jamal is asked has an answer he learned a little further along in his story than the last one.  I didn’t see this as a negative.  To me it was simply the story structure.

The movie also has some romance in it, and there are always going to be a certain set of people who dislike a movie for that.  Boyle decided to have a dance sequence over the closing credits as a tribute to the many films that are produced in India.  Some people felt this was out of place with the rest of the movie.  Finally, Slumdog Millionaire won the Best Picture Oscar and there are always people looking to tear down whatever film ends up winning.  None of these things are negatives to me and if these are the biggest faults people can find with the film then it is pretty damn good.

There’s really no reason to avoid this movie.  Everyone should see it.   Even if you don’t like subtitles they are only a small part of the overall film.  I give Slumdog Millionaire my highest recommendation.

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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  1. I really enjoyed this film when I saw it in theaters. It has everyhting a good film has to have! The only minus side to me is the buzz around it at the time that got onto my nerves. Very good review Chip!

  2. @Michael Parent - The biggest impact that a lot of buzz on a film has on me is that I am quite often disappointed when I eventually see it because it's impossible for it to live up to the hype. I'm glad Slumdog Millionaire didn't disappoint for you. Thanks.

  3. Great review!
    I liked the movie a lot when I saw it first time. The victory at Oscars is easy to explain though - there were no other credible opponents. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Doubt? Changeling? They all are not even close to the level of Slumdog Millionaire. It is straight, uncompromising and touching.

  4. @Anton - Thanks for commenting. I agree on the relative lack of presence among the other Best Picture nominees. Two of the best pictures of the year were not even nominated - The Wrestler and Gran Torino. I still would have picked Slumdog Millionaire, but it would have been a lot closer for me.

  5. Whenever there is a discussion on Slumdog Millionaire, Its always a Moral dilemma for a proud Indian like me, whether to feel good about the cultural heritage of India which compales foreigners to come here and experience it, or to feel ashamed about the poverty and the realities of life in India which this movie showcases. We (the Y2K) Indians are bit touchy about the subject of Poverty,Caste system in India especially when they are discussed on a world platform by non-Indians which is exactly what the film does and that too at a time when India is trying to project it as a next big country to look out for.

    India is a land of contradictions and Ironies. You can see a 7 star hotel surrounded by slums where people earn less than 20 Rs ( .30 $ a day). I am not saying the events or the life of the kids shown is exaggerated in any way, in fact reality in India is more disturbing in some cities, but when the truth comes in front of the eyes in such a dark and bitter form it startles you at start. Also the story is too dark and never really dwells into any positives about the country.

    Hi Chip, loved your blog and felt really good that there are people other than people of Indian subcontinent who understand and like Indian Movies. As a bollywood fan let me know if I can add some more good movies to your list of Indian Movies.

    _ Pavit v. (Sydney)

  6. @Pavit V. - Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I am always looking for recommendations on good movies, although it sometimes takes me a long time to see them.

  7. The movie is wonderful and it shows you what a diverse and exciting country India is. I think those who feel that the move is "overrated" are just annoyed at the hype and attention this movie has received from all over the world. I have to say, it is an exciting movie that is different from the Hollywood norm and allows you to get a glimpse of a new country with different people who live different lifestyles.

  8. @Sverige - Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us.