Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Slumdog Millionaire ***
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto
Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
Sitting on the brink of obtaining the ultimate prize in the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", there is only one thing 18 year old Jamal (the charming, in an Aladdin kind of way, Patel) knows for sure: he doesn't belong there. Or does he?
The same facts might be applicable to the film itself, which could muster screams of "sell out" if its existence wasn't so rooted in traditional Hollywood values which we've come to accept as "universal". A fairy tale with a social twist.
After growing up in a slum, having seen his mother killed by an anti-Muslim mob and running away from a gangster out to murder him Jamal is an unlikely choice to become a millionaire, which is why he's arrested after his first day on the show and questioned by a police inspector (the wonderful Khan) who suspects him of cheating.
Using this premise director Danny Boyle fashions a Dickensian tale about life, love and destiny using Jamal's past as the source of his correct answers.
The plot travels between the game, the police interrogation and Jamal's experiences which include his relationship with his troubled brother Salim (Mittal), his undying love for Latika (the luminous Pinto) and his ever present struggle for survival.
Boyle, of zombies and junkies fame, had never made a film with such mainstream intentions and whenever the story hurts the movie, the energy which Boyle puts into each of his projects makes it worthy.
With Anthony Dod Mantle's camera he gets right into the slums in Mumbai giving the visuals the labyrinthine dazzle the plot unsuccessfully aims for.
If there's another thing we've come to learn from films set in India, is that everything will look "exotic" and "vibrant" and Boyle follows the same path (even using a Bollywood meets hip hop score by A.R. Rahman which like everything else in the film wins over you even if you're aware of its contrivedness).
The film bursts with color and texture, or what we can perceive with Chris Dickens' hyperactive editing.
Despite its somewhat traditional style with which Boyle never encompasses the meaningfulness behind the poverty other than for dramatic backdrop purposes, the film's most complex matter lies in how it unconsciously captures a fast changing country.
This isn't the India of E.M Forster's "Passage" or the romanticized version of Bollywood musicals, but a country violently steering towards the nonexistent limbo between the third world and industrialization.
An India where luxury cars travel on unpaved roads, where people earning extremely low wages build the apartment complexes movie stars will inhabit.
Where call center employees solve problems for strangers across the globe and where gangsters roam the streets and become role models.
But for all the hardship, violence and tragedy shown, Boyle reminds us that it all has a purpose.
With his "suffering as means to heaven" theory he justifies viciousness and makes it easy for the audience to swallow child abuse, prostitution and human beings bathed in feces.
Boyle proves that he is a great manipulator and you have to ask yourself how do you make this manipulation work?
Is the director so efficient that he knows what buttons to push in his viewers in order to obtain certain emotions or is the film working at such a primordial level because of the historical context it's being released in?
Would "Slumdong Millionaire" have worked in a world without economic recession, war, environment chaos and hopelessness?
Is the movie a cause of this or an antidote? If Boyle had been a little bit less Spielberg and a bit more Rossellini he would've helped the film find answers within itself.
Because when it works, this movie convinces us that its success is written, but because it lets the bolts and screws behind its machinery show it leads to a different kind of realization.
When the movie starts it asks the audience if Jamal's success is due to cheating, luck, genius or fate, at the end when the film chooses to answer this for us we're on to its game.
It justifies its laziness with the premise that everything is "written" (which it obviously is considering this is a film and films come from screenplays and screenplays are written...) but its attempts at cosmic relevance prove that actually it's greatly underwritten and it shows.
However the truth is that "Slumdog Millionaire" believes, or rather buys, its own message so much that you don't know how to contradict it.
But like the rush you got watching the "Millionaire" show and rooting for a complete stranger, once you turn the television off you're left with nothing.