Slumdog Millionaire

Dir: Danny Boyle
Star: Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor

Not quite what I expected. Not sure what I was expecting, to be fair: I think this is a good deal darker in tone than I thought it would be. It doesn't flinch an inch from depicting the grinding poverty at the very bottom of Indian society, or soft-pedal the casual violence of the police, and up until the final moments, there are very few reasons to be cheerful. It's the story of Jamal (mostly Patel - though like all the main characters, three different actors are used depending on his age), who gets on to the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. His success - he makes it all the way to the final question before the show is held over till the next day - is viewed suspiciously by the local police. They believe the only explanation for a "slumdog" succeeding where more-educated contestants have failed, is that Jamal is cheating, and try to torture him into confessing. But Jamal explains how his background and life experiences in the slums allowed him to know the answers, based on the relationships with his brother Salim (Mittal), and struggles to be with the love of his life, Latika (Pinto), who has become the kept woman of a ganster boss.

It's an interesting approach, and Simon Beaufoy's script does a good job of tying together the disparate threads of Jamal's life, while Boyle brings Mumbai to life, from the poshest mansion to the most dismal slum [and let's be honest: we won't be going there any time soon]. The weakest aspect is probably Patel, who hardly seems to bother to act much, and Jamal's character is probably less interesting, in terms of a story arc, than Salim, who goes through a far greater transition over the course of the film. I was also unimpressed with the much-praised soundtrack: there have been many better to come out of Bollywood, and the final dance sequence is every bit as mis-placed as in the worst of Indian cinema [the one after the opening credits of Kidnap was the previous worst]. These mis-steps hamper, rather than destroy the movie, and what remains is still effective cinema, with the game-show proving surprisingly tense, even knowing the outcome. Credit Kapoor for playing the host nicely: he starts off insulting Jamal, and ends up realizing the contestant is the true star. If not perhaps deserving all the praise heaped on it, I've seen far worse Oscar winners, and can't complain too much about its success.

[December 2009]

And that's my final answer
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