Thursday, October 30, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

2008, UK/India, directed by Danny Boyle (and Loveleen Tandan)

It took me a while to come down from the adrenaline high of Slumdog Millionaire to construct some coherent thoughts: like Danny Boyle's earlier films Trainspotting and 28 Days Later the movie hits high gear fast - think of the opening scene in Trainspotting with Ewan McGregor running down a street and freeze-framing in front of a car - and sweeps the audience along somewhat breathlessly to the finale. Just as Trainspotting went beyond cinematic chutzpah to reveal something of the lives of the drug-addled in Edinburgh, Slumdog Millionaire aims to capture the spirit of Mumbai's streets, tracing the city's rapid development - as well as its official change of name from Bombay - since the early 1990s. 

In that, it covers some of the same ground as Mira Nair's 1988 film Salaam Bombay!, also focused on street children, but a much calmer depiction of the lows and occasional highs of life on the edges of Indian society (before the country's major economic changes). Boyle and his screenwriter Simon Beaufoy are, of course, from outside India, but their film doesn't simply come across as a collection of cliches assembled by outsiders: the vibrant images, for instance, are inspired by Bollywood cinema as well as by the splashes of colour in Indian rituals such as Diwali, and are thus grounded in an actual Indian reality. 

The film's set-up exemplifies the idea of a country on the move, straddling a traditional world and a new, globally-minded culture dominated by the young, with the hero, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, one of the few cast members not based in Indian) a teenager who is appearing on the Indian version of the show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The film is structured around the questions that Jamal is asked: each answer reveals something of his life, for we discover the circumstances where he acquired these fragments of knowledge. It's a little articifial at times - and the filmmakers chafe at their own restrictions, cutting some segments to the bone in order to get back to the main storyline. Still, for the most part it  works, constantly returning us to the nervous movie theatre where Jamal progresses through the game, all the while pitting his wits against both the computer and the host (Anil Kapoor, who hits just the right notes of insincerity as he tries to ensure that the show remains focused on him). 

Since the film opens with a rather brutal scene of police torture, the early sequences on the game show tend toward the light-hearted, as if to soften us up for even crueler realities later: a vignette centered around a rumored appearance by the Indian movie megastar Amitabh Bachchan is one of the funniest movie scenes I've seen in a long time (Amitabh was actually the first host of the real Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?). Later answers reveal a much darker side to Jamal's life, and while there's a sweet romance at the centre of the film, Boyle rarely soft-pedals reality, showing us brutal acts of violence, and the systematic destruction of childhood innocence; what makes Jamal remarkable is not that he remains innocent but rather that he retains an almost infinite capacity for hope, an idea that's both hopelessly old-fashioned and absolutely compelling to watch. That capacity drives him far more than does the promise of riches, an idea that the other characters can barely understand - and which even the filmmakers occasionally have difficulty following through on.

This is unashamedly rousing film entertainment, effectively casting a spell over the audience, and tapping into the best of popular Hollywood (and Bollywood, to which it pays particular tribute in the unexpected and utterly captivating closing credits sequence); while the visual style (a mix of lighting styles, camera angles, fast cuts and slow-motion effects that might make Tony Scott jealous) is clearly Boyle's, much of the credit for the tremendous performances from the younger cast members goes to his co-director/casting director Loveleen Tandan, no stranger to cross-cultural productions on the subcontinent.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States