Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: It is written

The first two thirds of this film are enthralling. The lives of three Muslim Mumbai orphans are both stirring and disturbing. Slumdog Millionaire follows the brothers Jamal and Salim, and their friend Latika, a girl of their age, as they struggle to survive amongst absolute poverty and cruel exploitation.

The violent interrogation of the adult Jamal reveals the key episodes of their story. Echoes of recent torture in Iraq and other places confront us. He tells the police how a tea boy has been able to answer all the questions on the television quiz showWho Wants To be A Millionaire. His seemingly indestructible will is explained as his life experiences unfold. They are survivors of the worst abuses of the slums and the darkest aspects of modern Indian life. Ironically Jamal’s own philosophy reflects the Indian national motto: Truth Alone Triumphs.

The early pace is very racy as befits street kids on the run. Director Danny Boyle mixes pathos and comedy as he creates screen characters who capture the audience completely.

Three actors play each of the key roles, as young children, teenagers and adults. As you might expect the child actors steal the film. Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as the youngest Jamal stands out. Dev Patel as the adult Jamal is a bit too normal and too naïve. Freida Pinto as the adult Latika is simply too beautiful. Madhur Mittal as the adult Salim is too slick.

The male antagonists are impressive if stereotyped. The thin police inspector (Irrfan Khan) and his rotund sergeant (Saurabh Shukla) are physical but fair. Mumbai’s Fagan, Maman (Ankur Vikal),is suitably heartless. The game show host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) mixes charm and sarcasm with ease. Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar) is repulsive as the pathological godfather.

The cimematography creates a slum world that is beautiful and touching in its reality and a top-end-of-town that repels with its shine.

Ultimately this is a romance . Perhaps even a fantasy as the hero follows his quest to free the imprisoned maiden. It’s also a gangster film and it is this element that spoils the latter part to some extent. Add game show and elements of reality television and we have a thoroughly modern fairy tale.

The concluding third of the film is disappointing as it moves towards its predictable Hollywood/Bollywood ending. If the first part strives for the social realism of Boyle’s classic Trainspotting, the climax could be Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Rockn Rolla. Perhaps even In Bruges. Nevertheless, you can’t help but be sucked in as the suspense builds. As one patron quipped as he left the theatre, “That’s the most enjoyable film I’ve seen in years!” I was smiling but felt just a little cheated.

Slumdog Millionaire is a strong contender for best foreign film, especially at the populist end of the voting. I’m still torn between Lemon Tree and Waltz with Bashir.

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