Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 17, 2008 9:19 pm 
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Horatio Alger in Mombai

An exhilarating entertainment, an adrenalin rush, and a non-stop two-hour blast of colorful image and sound, Danny Boyle's new movie Slumdog Millionaire is a feel-good fairy tale but also a rough guide to the Dickensian low life/high life contrasts of modern Bombay/Mombai. In the story, by a fluke 18-year-old "chai-wallah" Jamal (Dev Patel) has gotten onto India's version of "I Want to Be a Millionaire." He's been delivering chai around the offices of the TV station and they've discovered he's smart. He's been winning hugely as the contestant and has reached the 20 million rupee mark when, right as the movie begins, he's jerked out of the TV studio to be interrogated and tortured by the police because they think a ghetto kid would have to cheat to get those answers right.

The interrogation becomes a frame-tale worthy of the Arabian Nights. Each of Jamal's explanations of how he knew the answer to a particular "Millionaire" question takes the form of a hyper-kinetic flashback to yet another exciting, heart-stopping segment of his tumultuous emotional roller-coaster slumdog life. Fast-paced, fluent editing integrates sequences of Jamal's TV show performance, the police interrogation, and his recollections to explain how he knew a particular answer. It's a juggling act that never falters, and the high-energy film-making ensures that all three settings are consistently exciting and suspenseful. Every childhood reminiscence is a shocker, a tearjerker, and a cliff-hanger as Jamal strives to survive poverty and exploitation and unite with his childhood beloved. We don't know how the interrogation's going to wind up. And most exciting of all, the whole country is waiting to see if Jamal, the poor boy making good, will win the big jackpot or sink back into poverty, and we don't know how that's going to end either.

Eschewing the machinery of the huge city's Bollywood studios (though utilizing several of its stars), Danny Boyle and his Hindi-language co-director Loveleen Tandan took lightweight digital cameras directly into Mombai's side streets and ghettos and worked with non-actors to portray the young life of Jamal.

When accused by the police of cheating, Jamal sullenly replies that he simply "knew the answers." As we see the questions actually being posed during the show, Jamal is cool, rather dazed, in front of the boisterous TV audience, being played and teased by "Millionaire" show host Prem (Anil Kapoor, one of several big Indian stars in the film), yet coming up with the right answer. Then the scene shifts to a flashback of an anti-Muslim mob that slaughters Jamal's mother. Jamal and his brother Salim must flee and live on the streets by hustling and stealing. They take on the pretty Latika as a partner, who becomes the love of Jamal's life. At one phase they're kidnapped by the evil, Fagin-like Maman (Ankur Vikal), who makes them think they're at a spa for poor kids and then puts out his little captives' eyes and trains them to be street singers (the blind ones make more money). Jamal and Salim escape by hopping a train but lose Latika. Later the boys steal shoes from tourists visiting the Taj Mahal and sell them in a street market, and they act as charming but uninformed guides while allowing their host's cars to be stripped by pals. Eventually Jamal is betrayed by Salim, who's always cheated him and turns into a criminal.

Slumdog Millionaire is like an animated history of John Locke's theories of memory. Every recollection contains the answer to a question in the show as a fact engraved on Jamal's brain by the power of the accompanying joy or trauma he was experiencing when he learned it. In the later phases of Jamal's story, he tracks down Latika, finding her beauty being exploited in a low-life activity, and in seeking her, he runs back into Salim, whom he remains linked to, but cannot forgive. Eventually everything gets resolved appropriately and the ending is happy, with Jamal and the now gorgeous Latika (Freida Pinto) united in a kiss. The closing credits boldly flaunt the film's unreality as the principals and a host of extras do a light-hearted dance in the Mombai train station.

Slumdog Millionaire tells a story more notable for its ingenuity than its verisimilitude, but there's a tumultuous reality about it nonetheless. It can be admired--not to say loved--on many levels, and seems likely to stand as one of the year's best films. There are dozens of good actors. Superstar Irfan Khan (whom Americans have seen in The Namesake, A Mighty Heart, and The Darjeeling Limited) adds inestimable subtlety and warmth to the role of the police inspector. Anil Kapoor is vivid as the show host--and the film is highly successful at capturing the drama and suspense of "Millionaire" shows. Dev Patel, actually English-born (only the young Jamal actors speak Hindi), was a star of last year's realistic British comedy series about Bristol teens "Skins," which from all reports is an absolute gem and ought to be seen. Tall and thin, Patel projects a perfect combination for the role of nerdiness and purity, innocence and will-to-succeed. Much credit goes to Full Monty and Miss Pettigrew screenwriter Simon Beaufoy who adapted Vikas Swarup's ingenious novel, Q&A. This is a wonderfully cinematic effort whose essence is its intense visuals by DP Anthony Dod Mantle, coordinated effectively by editor Chris Dickens and underlined by the lively music of A.R. Rahman. Boyle has always gone for the wild stimulus package (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting) and the exotic adventure (The Beach, Sunshine). He's also shown skill at working with children (Millions) as he does in the many scenes of Jamal's early life here. This is his most intensely sui generis effort. It combines various Boyle skills and predilections in a single explosive whole. It's one of his greatest successes and a disturbing, thrilling, heart-warming pleasure to watch.

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