Despite all the movie reviews I do here, believe it or not I haven't been to the movies nearly as often this year as I usually get to go. So Danny Boyle's latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, truly came out of left field for me. I had no warning or preamble that it was even out in theaters until I started hearing the great buzz. And I'm here to tell you: that buzz is well earned!
This has been one of the best surprises of the year for me, movie wise. Coincidentally, it comes at a time when I've been getting deeper and deeper into all things from the subcontinent--Indian music, history, sci-fi novels (yeah, no kidding), and, most importantly, Indian movies. Combined, most of these elements fall under the uniquely Indian umbrella concept of "filmi" -- which, as the word implies, revolves around the huge cultural juggernaut of the film industry there. Similar to the grand productions of the 50s and 60s in America's Hollywood, India's own Bollywood is a huge business in that country. Slumdog Millionaire is not a Bollywood movie in the traditional sense, seeing as it is directed by a Brit and financed and produced by Hollywood. Yet, it is filmed in India, starring Indians, and concerning distinctly Indian motifs.
And the soundtrack is provided by none other than A.R. Rahman, India's premiere filmi composer and extraordinary musical genius. I love this man's music, and own three of his compilation albums. Needless to say the music is one of the many highlights of the film, blending the traditional as well as modern Indian influences with a wide range of world music from Salsa to African folk drums. This soundtrack contains the breadth and scope that truly takes on a life of its own in the movie, but is just par for the course when you have Mr. Rahman composing and sampling the tracks.
But what about the movie itself? It's an intriguing concept that revolves around the hit British tv game show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. The show has long since been exported and disseminated to a hundred different other countries around the world (the U.S. included), and so naturally India has it's own version of the show too. The premise is the story of a young man named Jamal Malik, a lowly chai "wallah" for a telecommunications mega corporation based in Mumbai. One day he wins the chance to appear on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, but is derided by the host (Mumbai's version of Regis Philbin) for his lowly roots in the slums. For "slumdogs" are supposed to know their place, you see? And never, ever possess the education or intelligence to even appear on the show, let alone answer any of the questions correctly.
But Jamal does answer the questions correctly, and pretty soon he is well on his way towards winning the sum pot of 20 million rupees (roughly the equivalent of $1 million). Just as he is about to go for the final question, the show runs out of time, and Jamal (along with the rest of the country) must wait another day to find out if he can pull off the greatest upset in the show's history.
However, Jamal ends up being dragged to the local police precinct and tortured for hours to give up his "secrets" on how he cheated to get the answers. You see, no one can believe he just happened to make it as far as he has when doctors, lawyers, and teachers have never made it more than halfway through the grueling trivia gauntlet.
What unfolds next is a weary Jamal reciting his life's story in bits and pieces as the film progresses. We jump between the present and the past, starting early with Jamal's childhood. With each story he tells, the police (as well as the audience) discover how Jamal's individual life experiences have prepared him to know the answers to each question. By the time the flashbacks wind around to the present day, you are in awe at what this young man has experienced growing up in the Mumbai slums.
Yet, at it's heart, Slumdog Millionaire is actually a love story. Jamal is forever searching for the love of his life, a childhood friend named Latika. Jamal and his no-good brother meet Latika as kids after a horrific mob murders their parents over their family's Muslim beliefs. Forced to eke out an existence among the other slumdog children, the three form a bond and grow to depend on each other. What follows next is a poignant tale of growing up, hardship, love, betrayal, friendship, and ultimately: redemption and forgiveness.
Newcomer Dev Patel does an amazing job portraying the sensitive yet cunning Jamal, a young man with a lifetime of experiences behind his sad eyes. Of particular note is veteran filmi actor, Irfan Khan, who does an outstanding job as the police inspector who grills Jamal. Westerners may be more familiar with him as the father in 2006's The Namesake. He is such a good actor! At first you want to hate him for his brutality, but as the film progresses he begins to show a human side and even compassion towards Jamal. Eventually he lets Jamal return to the game show to attempt the final question. I won't give away the ending, but everything does come together in a believable--and lovely satisfying--manner.
A special note is another newcomer, actress Freida Pinto, who plays the present day Latika. I don't know where she came from, but I hope to see her in more movies--both Holly-and Bollywood produced. She literally lights up the screen in every scene she's in and, along with Dev Patel, really wins the audience over with her performance. I think I might have a new crush now!
Doesn't she sorta remind you of Paula Patton? It's uncanny in the movie, the resemblance. She also looks a little like Rosario Dawson, too. I wonder if she's mixed? Her name seems rather Spanish- or Portuguese-influenced to me, but she was raised and educated in Mumbai, and is definitely very Indian.
Anyway, enough gushing about the movie and its actors. Although it's only getting a limited showing in the States at this time--I advise everyone to go see it AS SOON AS POSSIBLE when it hits theaters near you!
Trust me, you won't be disappointed.