Friday, December 12, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire: It is written!

Slumdog Millionaire (2008) • View trailer for Slumdog Millionaire
Five stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence, profanity, torture and graphic child abuse
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.12.08
Buy DVD: Slumdog Millionaire • Buy Blu-Ray: Slumdog Millionaire [Blu-ray]

Some filmmakers — precious few — deserve to be cherished for their totality of talent: the degree to which they understand and exploit every aspect of the motion picture medium, from actors and camera angles to music and production design.
Jamal (Dev Patel, left) has enough on his plate, while facing progressively
harder question as a contestant on India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire; the
last thing he needs is the rising hostility from the show's host, Prem (Anil
Kapoor), who feels increasingly threatened by the stage presence of this
no-account kid from the Mumbai slums.

Nothing is accidental in the hands of such an artist; everything is planned. Watching the resulting film is less a passive experience and more a celebration.

Director Danny Boyle has given us just such a movie this holiday season, with his dazzling Slumdog Millionaire.

This is a truly original creature: a distinctly different approach by the British Boyle to tell a story set halfway around the world, using a cast of primarily children and young people to tell a tale so audaciously melodramatic — from exhilarating love story to crime drama, travelogue and underdog saga — that we half expect the film to collapse under the weight of its own structure.

But that never happens. Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), adapting Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A, trigger every human reaction possible as their film proceeds.

Initially, though, you're likely to go pale.

The story begins brutally, as 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is hauled into a police station by an inspector (Irrfan Khan) who wants answers: As we discover via flashbacks, the boy, a contestant on India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, is one question away from winning the top prize.

Clearly, Jamal has been cheating ... because how could an orphan from the slums of Mumbai possibly have known the answers to all those diverse and increasingly obscure questions?

The inspector wants his own answers, and isn't above employing torture to get them. But Jamal cannot grant the inspector's desire, and the attending sergeant — who cranks the car battery to shock the boy into submission — finally voices the unthinkable: What if the kid really knew the answers?

How, scoffs the inspector, could that ever be the case?

Jamal, tossed into a chair, eagerly responds to this question he can handle. But the answer is complicated, and requires him to return to his adolescent days on the streets: a harrowing saga shared with his older brother, Salim.

We're thus thrust into the steaming cesspool of India's worst slums, to experience the childhood antics of young Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail), who contrive to snatch moments of joy amidst truly horrendous surroundings. We quickly see that Jamal is the dreamer, while Salim is a more harshly practical companion.

Jamal would do anything — and I mean anything — to secure an autograph from his favorite celebrity; Salim, rather than let his younger brother to enjoy the moment of triumph, snatches the happy feeling away in a heartbeat. Salim's reasoning may be sound, but the act remains cruel; this dichotomy will fuel and characterize their relationship as the boys grow older.

The issue, though, is whether both boys will grow older. Their already grim lives are further shattered in a heartbeat; subsequent events take on a Dickensian tone, as these children are thrown from one merciless incident to another. (Be advised: Boyle and Beaufoy do not flinch from these horrors.)

Along the way, Jamal insists that they "adopt" a little girl of like age named Latika (Rubina Ali, in these early scenes). They become the "three musketeers" that the boys recall from their all-too-brief school lessons, long ago and far away.

All three of these young "actors" were untrained when they made this film; Ismail and Ali were found in the slums of Mumbai and, knowing no English, spoke all their lines in their native Hindi dialects. This only adds to the verisimilitude of their wrenchingly realistic scenes; to say that our heart goes out to all three would be a supreme understatement.

As Boyle cross-cuts these events with the older Jamal's interrogation in police headquarters, we gradually realize that every one of his childhood escapades — some trivial, some comical, some bloodcurdling — bears directly on one of the questions posed to him on the TV show.

Having fathomed this gimmick, we become more intrigued by the way in which each new chapter of Jamal's life will relate to the next question; obviously knowing that we've cottoned to the game, Boyle and Beaufoy make each subsequent link even more audaciously clever.

At their "middle ages," Jamal, Salim and Latika are played by, respectively, Tanay Chheda, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala and Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar; by now, Jamal has fallen in love with Latika. But slum criminal elements can find a better use for little girls than little boys, and such a relationship doesn't merely seem impossible, but tragically doomed.

At the same time, the alternating scenes of Jamal's police interrogation and his childhood recollections are further intercut with the young man's progressive success the previous evening, in the TV studio, as he faces the show's host and questioner, Prem (Bollywood star Anil Kapoor). Here, too, the drama mounts in intensity, and not because of the game show's questions.

Rather than share his young contestant's mounting success, the egotistical Prem clearly resents Jamal; although awestruck by his surroundings, the young man remains nonetheless unruffled, even mildly suave. Feeling threatened by his contestant, the unctuous Prem — and it should be mentioned that Kapoor frequently plays a villain in Indian blockbusters — becomes ever more blatantly nasty.

The trials and tribulations faced by the adolescent Jamal are the result of circumstance; Prem, in great contrast, is an antagonist by choice, who wields privilege as a weapon.

Boyle's attention to detail, throughout all this, is staggering. Perhaps most impressive is the degree to which these three sets of performers so persuasively play these three central characters. You'll not doubt for a moment that the youngest Jamal "grows" into the character's adolescent self, and then again into young adulthood.

The adult Latika, played by Indian model Freida Pinto, definitely qualifies as a fairy tale icon: "someone you would crawl across the earth for," in Beaufoy's words.

Boyle was so impressed by the degree to which casting director Loveleen Tandan was responsible for the success of his film, that he granted her a co-director credit. It's a rare gesture, and well-earned.

Mark Digby's production design is similarly impressive; it's impossible to separate studio sequences from those filmed on location, and the result is the strong conviction that we're present in the Mumbai slums with these characters, experiencing their story as they do. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle gives the movie an on-the-ground documentary feel, the grit of the story reflected in the grainy film stock.

The sense of authenticity is augmented further by A.R. Rahman, a famed Indian composer whose career is regarded as a turning point in the history of film music.

(Rahman has sold more than 100 million records of his film scores and soundtracks worldwide, making him one of the world's top 30 all-time top-selling recording artists.)

And as if the film's own exuberance weren't enough — and you'll rarely feel more enthusiastically touched, as the story's climactic act plays out — Boyle acknowledges another Bollywood tradition and plays the closing credits against a spirited dance sequence that involves every member of the cast. It's a marvelous finale to a magnificent motion picture experience that derives much of its power from good, old-fashioned storytelling.

Next time some clown complains that "they don't make movies like they used to," be sure to mention this one.

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