Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: Slumdog Millionaire

There are very few movies we've seen at the end of which the entire audience remained silent and rooted to their seats - Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful, Sixth Sense ... and now Slumdog Millionaire. An audience that had been vocal throughout the movie, with gasps, groans and giggles, found neither its voice nor its feet at the end.

Slumdog is the story of two young boys, Jamal and Salim, growing up in the slums of Mumbai. They adore their movie stars, would rather be playing cricket than going to school, and when they know they've done something wrong they'd rather get caught by the police than find themselves within arm's reach of their mother. What little semblance of order they have in their lives is lost in the instant she is killed in a communal riot. They find themselves homeless and, along with an equally rudderless young girl, Latika, try to scrape together a life on the streets.

Until, that is, their lives are torn asunder at the hands of greed and human depravity of such unimaginable magnitude that they are hard to countenance even on a movie screen. The two boys manage to escape the horror but, in one of the many excruciating scenes in the movie, are forced to leave Latika behind. The rest of the plot revolves around Jamal's (who, by then, has developed an affection for Latika) relentless attempts to reunite with Latika.

Vikas Swarup's plot line is admirable for its ingenuity. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, each flashback corresponding to a question on the Indian version of the TV game show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. Jamal is in the hot seat when the movie begins. As each question comes up, we are transported to that part of Jamal's life that shows us how he came to know the correct answer.

A few seemingly innocuous questions. Answers to which many of us may have acquired in the most pedestrian fashion, through moments whose bearing on our lives, if any at all, is long forgotten. But in Swarup's hands, they morph into engines of exploration into the human condition. At its heart - a rather enormous, pulsating, mesmerizing vortex of intense feeling and emotion - the story charts the halting advance of grit and determination over bone-crushing poverty and soul-crushing cruelty; the triumph of love and sacrifice over betrayal; the defeat of despair at the hands of hope.

Even as the movie builds to a crescendo of almost unbearable proportions, the audience becomes privy to the way of life on the streets and in the slums of Mumbai. The camera takes an unflinching look at the margins (in some places around the world, rather large margins) of society, at the less than penurious existence just beyond that imaginary border that separates luxury, refinement and culture from deprivation, squalor and filth.

But the camera doesn't look for the sake of looking, merely to document a way of life, just to titillate the senses. Nor does it merely skim the surface, letting us feel a twinge of pity as most of us are wont to do, safely ensconced behind darkened and raised car windows. It delves deep into the underbelly, into a microcosm with its own complement of needs, wants, desires, joys, disappointments, rules, consequences, and secret passageways to getting out.

And in this, the movie triumphs. Because shorn of its surroundings and the particular circumstances of this plot line, the story still has legs to stand on. This is not merely the story of two boys and a girl from the bowels of Mumbai. This is the story of the heart and soul of Everyboy and Everygirl who live Everywhere determined to face whatever life throws at them. For this reason, I am thrilled that it turned out to be a story set in India. Because, reflected in the shiny glass facades of the new India is this soul-stirring ode to the supremacy of spirit over circumstance - both mirror and reflection, in equal measure, going on to make up the swirling, whirling brew of myriad contradicting ideas, philosophies and ways of life; both equally India, but neither having sole rights to the whole.

As for the cast, the three sets of kids do a wonderful job of portraying Jamal, Salim and Latika at various stages. Irrfan Khan is wasted in the role of the inspector interrogating Jamal on charges of cheating on the quiz show. Anil Kapoor as the sleazy game show host made me want to wring his hairy neck, so he must have done a good job. A.R. Rahman's music is poignant and evokes a foot-tapping fervor in all the right places.

Finally, I'm not sure if Swarup or the movie makers were aware of this, but the song, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which was the inspiration for the title of the original game show series, goes like this:
Who wants to be a millionaire?
I don't. 'Cause all I want is you.
Fitting lyrics for Jamal, who only goes on the show as a way to reach Latika, who doesn't know the answer to the last question and doesn't really care as long as he can find her.

This movie, like the book Shantaram, just by being searingly honest in its telling of its story is one that will stick with me for a long time.

Slumdog, 120 minutes, is rated 'R' in the US. It is not appropriate for children. One family found out the hard way after they got to the theater with two young children - they got up and left about less than a third into the movie.


Anonymous said...

Good write-up! I, too, enjoyed the movie quite a bit. But I have a couple of reservations about the writing. One, the omnipresent connections between each question and a cliched (Western) stereotype about India seemed, in some places, forced. No, I am not one of those who got pissed off with this movie because it didn't show my country in a bright light. I don't believe that it's any director's responsibility to make sure that he/she shows the complete picture of any society/phenomenon in their movie. The movie set up in the slums of Bombay *demands* the presence of social nuisances (like the ones that were shown in this movie) because they do exist. My problem is with the *inescapable compulsive necessity* with which they are shown in this movie. Other issue that I have with SM is the fact that although this movie belongs to the fairy-tale feel-good entertainer genre - it doesn't give enough hint to the audience about that. This is okay when the movie is viewed by an Indian, but to the Western audience's eye this might serve as a social commentary and guide book to India....

Anonymous said...

Slumdog Millionaire is a good move but I didn't quite enjoy it mainly because of few reasons
* I find it hard to believe that realistically so many things go wrong for this one kid - he never gets a break. Just seemed a little exaggerated to me and Westerners will get a wrong idea about India based on this.
* Anil Kapoor making fun of Jamal - that's just a lawsuit waiting to happen. You may make fun of him behind the scenes but never on camera.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Good overview. Yes the film was excellent.

However the irony is that, while the film goes on to get international accolades, awards for the director, the "lead" actor, composer etc. the focus of the filM, the SLUMDOGS - Rubina Ali (Latika), Azharuddin Ismail (Salim) continue to live in abject poverty in their slums. Reportedly their remuneration has been INR 35000 and INR1.3 lakhs respectively, far from even securing a decent life let alone being a millionnaire

Sujatha Pradeep, Delhi

Winnowed said...

A very good review. I saw this movie recently and thought it was admirable in the way it portrayed Mumbai's underbelly.

Raj said...

It is definitely a good movie from cinematography/direction point of view. Other than that I am a sceptic, maybe it's the familiarity and de-sensitization of being around poverty/slums makes me one.

Maybe the newness of the concept and the skills of the director makes this so appealing to the western audience.

The actors were OK, Anil Kapoor and AR Rehman have had better films than this.


Anonymous said...

It's definitely a well- crafted movie and like somebody else said, the director doesn't hold the responsibility to project a 'good' image. He's done a realistic job but I wonder whether the responsibility ends there... Deepa Sahi's Water won rave reviews 'cos of the realistic depiction of widows in Indian society. It's great for the 'exotic' feel but then, it's also digging a great foundation for the stereotypes.

Milroy Goes said...

This should be published on Times of India.
I really appreciate the writer.

People like Arindam Chaudhuri shall be boycotted "ARINDAM GO BACK WITH YOUR ARTICLE ON TIMES OF INDIA"

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is one of its kind and a Masterpiece.

Milroy Goes

Cantaloupes.Amma (CA) said...

Agreed this is a well made movie ... do you really think it justifies all the brouhaha around it?
I certainly liked the movie ... this movie ends on a bright note glorifying hope ... what more do I ask ... but can it be ranked to the likes of Sixth sense Or Schindler's list ... I am not sure.

Anonymous said...

Yayy, I'm glad you chose Slumdog and glad you enjoyed it. Not a word I can find fault with. Not that I was trying anyway :)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Vishal, thank you! I agree with you about the director's responsibility. But I'm not so concerned about the fantastic nature of the plot. In a good book or movie, the plot is a vehicle through which the narrative tries to arrive at the larger truths about humanity. And Slumdog manages to do that admirably. About how foreigners will view the movie, yes, I agree, some of them will look at this movie and say, Wow! India is so this or that. But we've done it so many times with Hollywood movies - thought that Americans are this or that, just based on the movies. That's to be expected. But there is also a large portion of the audience that will take it for what it is - a fantastic story that shows the seamier side of humanity while celebrating its resilience. Thank you for your comment and for willing to discuss your thoughts. There are so many layers to this movie that a corner of my mind is still mulling it over. :)

Swapna, thank you for your comment. I agree that some elements are beyond the realm of reality, but why do we expect this movie to be realistic? This was not pegged as a documentary.

Sujatha, thank you for mentioning that, but I don't have much information about that aspect. I understood that the kids have trust funds now which they can access when they are 16 and in the meantime their education is being paid for.

Winnowed, thank you!

Raj, I thought the same way initially, but as the movie progressed the blurry edges of my awareness cleared up somewhat. Thank you for commenting.

N'ville Mom, as long as the movie did not propogate a false idea about India, I was fine.

Milroy, thank you.

CA, I was not comparing Slumdog to those movies, but was saying how similar the audience's reaction was to all those movies.

Girlonthebridge, thank you! Appreciate the comment! :)

Choxbox said...

awesome review.
haven't yet seen it, will do at some point and if i do will come back here and tell you what i think.

GGBlog said...

Great Review. Real life controversy aside, first and foremost it was a fun and entertaining movie. The best I have seen this summer. I have posted more thoughts here. The dance sequence at the end made everyone in our cinema walk out smiling and tapping their feet.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Thanks Chox. Do tell me.

Robert, thank you! It was full paisa vasool, as we'd say in India. I hopped on over to your blog and enjoyed reading all those movie reviews!

Nino's Mum said...

great review, can't wait to watch it even more now!
Also, wow, look at the variety of comments this movie has generated :)
Danny boy's done something right.
Oh, btw, haven't read Swaroop's book yet, but there is a strong section of bloggers in India who belive the book was not half as inspiring as the movie's script (rewritten, with no inputs from Swaroop) is.

Bhaskar Sree said...

need to read that one.. shantaram and maybe Q&A too... did ya?

"....supremacy of spirit over circumstance "\

"- both mirror and reflection, in equal measure, going on to make up the swirling, whirling brew of myriad contradicting ideas, philosophies and ways of life; both equally India, but neither having sole rights to the whole."

you are amazing!! I couldnt have said it better..

Anonymous said...

This movie was the greatest movie ive seen. I don't watch very many movies but out of all the movies Ive seen this is the best. Freida Pinto is really hot.

ninja said...

Why would You say it's not suitable for kids?

Sujatha Bagal said...

Koala, because there are scene of intense cruelty to the kids and extreme hardship. Don't know if you've seen the movie already, but there's that one scene in which a child is blinded by hot oil so he can draw more money as a blind child singer.

Anonymous said...
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