“Slumdog Million- aire” is this year’s little-film-thatcould, but there’s actually nothing little about it – aside from the kids who make it shine. It’s big and bold, lush and hectic for the eye and ear; it has a cast of thousands and a story that’s worth the hype. This movie, which once wasn’t even expected to make it to most theaters, made it to the history books this week when it won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
In India, where the film is set, its distinctly un-Bollywood depictions of urban poverty have drawn criticism. However, the plot itself is clever, slick and even fun. As it opens, we learn that young Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), who works serving tea in a call center, is nearing an improbable victory on India’s version of the quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The host believes the uneducated “slumdog” has cheated, and submits Jamal to a cruel interrogation. But as he is given the third degree, we find that each question he was asked on the show connects to a memory from his short and brutal life. Along with his captors, we see his life story unfold.
I know far too little about India to judge whether this film captures the country well, but Jamal seems a kind of everyman, and his story an epic.
He goes from slum to dump to orphanage, rides the tops of trains through scenery barren and beautiful, and lives several lives in the time it takes most of us to grow up.
The film emphasizes that the India romantics may imagine is only a small part of the country’s reality.
When Jamal and his brother come across the Taj Mahal, where the movie’s funniest scenes unfold, they think it must be a fancy hotel. And when Jamal is beaten after one unfortunate escapade, he tells the U.S. tourists who’d hired his services, “You wanted to see the real India? Here it is!”
The film as a whole, under the leadership of British director Danny Boyle, makes that statement throughout.
It’s strange to leave such a movie with a warm heart and dancing feet, but that incongruous combination of sadness and joy is what makes “Slumdog” unique. Patel, along with leading lady Latika (the gorgeous Freida Pinto) and supporting characters, give solid performances, and the children of various ages who play Jamal, his brother and Latika as they grow up play their parts with unaffected honesty. The soundtrack is vibrant, and the plot clicks forward with the pace of a thriller.
All in all, it’s so delightful that we can forgive the writers for calling it a day five minutes before the end – the last few lines are as cheesy as can be. But who cares? “Slumdog” transports us out of our skins, into a world most of us have never seen. It is pure movie magic. Thank goodness the film, like its hero, made an improbable leap to fame and fortune.