by Rick Grant
Grade: A / Rated R / 120 min
From director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy comes Slumdog Millionaire an enchanting British film that tells the story of an abused orphan in the mold of “David Copperfield.” The story is told through the lens of an Indian television gameshow, Who Wants to be A Millionaire in which the orphan Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is winning and stands a chance to win the grand prize of 10 million rupees. Jamal’s claim to fame is his worldliness and street savvy, learning things about Indian life from his own experiences. As Jamal wins each round, the story flashes back to his life experience.
Jamal comes from the slums of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) where he eked out a living on the street and scrounging the dumps. Boyle’s visceral shots of Mumbai’s slums are shocking to Americans who haven’t traveled to India and have never seen this degrading level of poverty. Nonetheless, Jamal is bright and industrious with a photographic memory.
Dev Patel’s charismatic characterization of Jamal captures the viewer’s imagination from the beginning. The boy cruises through the lower levels of the competition. After he wins on the show before the big payoff of 10 million rupees, he is arrested by the police who torture him, hoping to get him to confess that he is cheating. He denies it and sticks to his story. Finally the cops are convinced he’s telling the truth and let him go. Sadly, this is how Jamal’s life has always gone. Any positive thing that has happened to him has been negated by abuse at the hands of either the police or middle class Indians who loathe the “slumdogs” of the ghetto.
Boyle’s supporting cast of A-list Bollywood actors paid off with authentic Indian street scenes and its colorful society. Anil Kapoor, who is an Indian movie star, plays the gameshow host who harbors a devious motivation other than getting spectacular ratings. Freida Pinto portrays the charming Latika. The gameshow device works wonderfully well on all levels. It sets-up a sweeping romance, thriller, and mystery as Indian society teems with over population as a backdrop.
Shining through the din of smelly humanity is Jamal, who by now is a TV star. The public, including every socioeconomic strata, is glued to their TVs, rooting for Jamal. Imagine a lowly slumdog winning the jackpot-it’s a dream come true for Indian’s poverty stricken masses. The gameshow feeds the imaginations of ambitious Indian society, many of whom work in the massive outsourced customer service centers. Boyle parodies this annoying phenomenon with a scene at a typical service center. The employees work hard to sound American and help them solve their computer problems.
Boyle’s pacing balances the gameshow scenes with the flashbacks brilliantly, as viewers learn more about Jamal. Since his story exists on many different levels simultaneously, it’s exciting and engrossing. Characters come and go while Jamal keeps winning. Magically, he is rising above his class but even if he wins the money, he will still be called a slumdog. He’ll have to use the money to excel in a legitimate Indian business to overcome the stigma of his class tag. But Jamal has the moxie and smarts to break through India’s class ceiling to evolve into a respected entrepreneur.
The contrasting scenes of Jamal winning each phase of the gameshow set against the extreme poverty of Mumbai’s slums defines Boyle’s mosaic. However, Jamal’s positive attitude and ambitions to get out of the slums is at the heart of Beaufoy’s screenplay. The gameshow acts as the center of orbiting events. The film is on most movie critics top ten list, including my SEFCA ballot. Giving Boyle’s masterwork an R rating was unfair and left out the huge teen audience who may have been able to see this film without their parents. Alas, filmdom is divided between the award worthy quality films and the commercial schlock that makes the big money. Such is the nature of the beast.
by Rick Grant