directed by Danny Boyle
written by Simon Beaufoy
based on the novel by Vikas Swarup
starring Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Madhur Mittal, Freido Pinto, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ayush Mahesh, Khedekar, Mahesh Manjrekar, Ankur Vikal, Irrfan Khan, Rubiana Ali
Slumdog Millionaire is a deceptively simple story told intricately and with great subtlety about the vagaries of love and the complications that often arise when one makes a concerted effort to gain it.
Jamal Melik (Patel) as the film opens is being detained by police and tortured because they as well as the officials at the Indian import of the American game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” think that he cheated. He has risen from the slums of Mumbai to being one question away from winning 20 million rupees and the host, Prem Kumar (Kapoor) believes it is impossible for such a lowly person to know all the answers. One by one Jamal goes through the questions and the film reveals the moments in his life where he learned them. We are provided with instances that go back to just before Jamal and his brother Salim’s (Mittal) mother is murdered by Anti-Muslim zealots. The boys become orphans and get by doing anything and everything to survive. Mostly they live amidst the trash heaps and ingeniously devise methods of stealing whatever isn’t nailed down from tourists who are necessarily charmed by dirty Indian children who play up their impoverished state for their rubes.
The film is a thrilling portrait of a most degenerate area in a vast and grand country that is slowly pulling itself into the 21st century. This is not the travel book version of India. It’s a filthy and crumbling place consumed with wretchedly attired beggar children who are maltreated and groomed in various illicit ways in order to make as much money as possible singing for passerby.
One day during a rainstorm the boys have found cover. A young girl their age is being pelted by the rain and Jamal invites her up. She is also an orphan girl and the three become inseparable–the three muskateers. Her name is Latika and Jamal quickly forms an attachment to her. When a man named Maman (Vikal) takes the children to an orphanage they imagine they have landed in a place where they will be cared for and fed well. Unfortunately they are unaware of Maman’s vicious techniques for making the children into the most effective beggars on the streets. After a terrifying incident the boys escape but Latika is left behind. Jamal pledges to go back for her and several years later he makes good on his word.
The agonies of poverty and deprivation are exploited to full effect in this film. There are scenes where swarms of children fan out in order to bleed money from as many sympathetic persons as possible. It’s grimy, horrific and a necessary portrait of the underbelly of India and draws attention to its problems with keeping abreast of the terrible conditions which many of its citizens reside. The film suggests that this problem will have to be effectively addressed if India is going to continue to ascend onto the World’s stage.
Throughout this film there is a tremendous energy that coupled with bright, intoxicating colors create a portrait of a country on the move. The slums are vibrant places consumed with life and viability. They are not demonized nor are their inhabitants treated as victims. Rather, the situation is merely presented without any commentary and the viewer can make up their own mind about how they perceive the conditions under which life is brought forth. This is an exceedingly open film replete with joy, passion, and a forthright urgency that is dynamic and explosive. Yet it doesn’t shy away from disclosing a much darker world that has arisen as a necessary side effect of the progress that is pushing forward relentlessly.
The narrative demonstrates how Jamal climbs up the ranks on his way to the potential big payoff. Each question brings him closer to what is presented as his destiny and this is directly tied into Latika (Pinto) and everything she means to him. The film is a series of gains and losses as Latika repeatedly slips from Jamal’s grasp as he struggles on in the hope of bringing her near to him once again.
Salim takes a decidedly different path from his brother that is set from the moment he first picks up a gun. He develops into a key member of crime boss Javed’s (Manjrekar) syndicate. His presence is felt throughout the film as a grim counterpart to all the riotous thrills that Jamal has realized with his successful run on the game show. The very end of the film shows two very different outcomes for each brother that work exceedingly well within the context of the story. Salim becomes a hard man embroiled in a life beset with terror, fear, and ruthlessness. Salim is lost at some point in the story. He falls into a lifestyle that is broken and degrading. There is not one instance where Salim and his ilk are glamorized. It’s a brutal life and Salim has chosen it for himself and seems unable or unwilling to walk away.
The tension surrounding the execution of the final answer in the contest is decisive and pronounced. The film builds it expertly throughout and the result is entirely in doubt to the very end. It could have gone either way and essentially it doesn’t much matter how it turns out. Immediately after Jamal is crouched low and leaning up against a building. He doesn’t appear to be particularly charmed by his enormous victory. He is looking for Latika because ultimately it was for her that he even attempted to go after the money. He says that he participated only because he hoped she was watching. Much of his life he has burned for this one person and nothing can divest him of the drive to find her at last. Their tormented relationship is as profoundly moving as anything that has been seen this year. The agony is pervasive and the earnestness with which Jamal seeks Latika is immersed in a poetry that all great love stories must contain if they are going to move the audience into that place that all such stories reside. This film masterfully sets up this dynamic and makes it matter to an audience that is looking to be so moved.
The film reveals a tremendous hunger throughout India as 90 million people tune in to see if Jamal has what it takes to win the game. That’s the equivalent of the American Super Bowl which is easily the highest rated show in any year.
Latika is a character who is lifted out of the slums only to find herself subjected to type of bondage that makes her into a deeply sympathetic character that the audience roots for. Freido Pinto, in her first film, captures the innocence and world weary aspect of her character with a sturdy ease that is vital to Jamal’s arc. She must be presented as someone worth pining for and Pinto does this through her gentle portrayal of Latika and her genuine approach to the character’s inherent longing. Latika grows up over the course of the film into a woman who has experienced great pain and suffering. There is a sense that both Jamal and Latika are two people who have been driven to one another to realize a grace that they have heretofore been deprived of. They truly need each other and the film makes this fact a driving force of its narrative.
The performances in this film are convincing and thoroughly natural. Dev Patel has a haunted countenance throughout the film which convey’s his character’s bewilderment and mounting sorrow over the possibility of losing his one true love. Patel captures Jamal’s intensity and focus. He is so good and generating a lasting hope that is carried through the duration of the film. His is a story that has a necessity about it that Patel brings enthusiastically to his role. Madhur Mittel’s character carries a tremendous weight on his shoulders that is made manifest in the final moments of the film. Salim is presented throughout the film as the more adventurous of the two who exploits his position as the eldest in his relationship with Jamal. Salim disappears into the fabric of the film only to arrive at a strange destination that is in direct opposition to how Jamal has come to live his life. As mentioned Freida Pinto carries herself with a decisive purpose as Latika maneuvers her way through her conflicting and occasionally stifled life. Anil Kapoor has all the charisma and affability one could possibly expect of a successful game show host. His character carries much of the film with his contagious charm coupled with abrasiveness that gives him bite and sets him up as an example of what a corrosive and slightly inhospitable host can bring to such a circus. Much of the film’s power comes from the two young actors playing Jamal and Salim as children. They are convincing in their roles as impoverished dreamers who pounce on any opportunity to improve the quality of their lives.
Overall, this is a masterful telling of a story that has a lasting, eternal quality. The characters are realistically drawn and the film never falls into the quagmire of sentimentality. It is never simplistic although the main thrust to the story is perhaps one of the simplest driving factors in any film that wants to present a credible romantic entanglement. These are would be lovers torn apart over the course of a dozen or so years struggling to finally reach a place where their love can be actualized. This is a film about brotherhood and respect. Jamal finds himself one question away from national celebrity. Already there is a sense of how his accomplishments have garnered him tremendous media coverage. But Jamal is not unduly affected by this attention and proceeds to approach the game with the same calm temerity with which he approaches the rest of his life.