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Slumdog Millionaire Feel-Good Cinema At Its Best

Slumdog Millionaire
Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Written by Simon Beaufoy from the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup
Fox Searchlight, 2008

There are many movies that capture all sorts of unexpected critical attention and its right to be skeptical about such things.  Early critics seem to ruin it for everyone else.  You either get a movie that is overpraised or you get a movie that is dreadfully underpraised and we the consumer get cheated one way or another.  But I can report that you can believe the kudos being handed out to Slumdog Millionaire.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is being beaten and interrogated about how he could possibly get so far in the Hindi version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? After all, not even the smartest, most educated people have gotten as far as he has.  His chief interrogator (Irfan Khan) shows Jamal the tape, starting with the first question.  It’s here the movie jumps to the atmosphere of the show, as Jamal is questioned by host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), and the movie then further flashes back into Jamal’s childhood, where the answer to the first question was learned.

Jamal (played at different ages by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Hemant Chheda in addition to Patel) and his brother Salim (played at different ages by Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, and Madhur Mittal) are living a poor life with their single mother (Sanchita Couhdary), and we see an incident in early childhood which not only provides the answer, but develops the plotting of the brothers and their wayward paths.

Once their mother gets cut down by religious extremists, also a plot development that leads to another answer, they are orphans on their own.  Soon, a young girl by name of Latika (played at different ages by Rubiana Ali, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, and the absolutely gorgeous Freida Pinto) joins them, at Jamal’s behest. Their friendship and later star-crossed romance is the basis for Jamal trying to get on the show in the first place. Jamal has many obstacles to overcome: a cruel child-labor camp, a notorious gangster, his ever-hardening brother Salim, and even the Millionaire host Kumar.  All of these people are obstacles to him reuniting with Latika.

The movie asks, as Jamal gets deeper and deeper into the questions, is he lucky, is he cheating, is he smart, or…”is it written?”, a fate-based choice.  The circumstances by which he comes to learn the answers to the questions that just happened to be asked of him are remarkable.  And the movie answers its question by the end, at which you might be very well be welling up in tears.  The journey Jamal takes is as compelling as his success on the show.  The story could have very well gotten sloppy on the journey and just had a bunch of lazy reasons for Jamal’s knowledge.  One of my favorite little moments in the film is when the investigator asks Jamal, “Who is on the $1000 rupee note?” and he has no idea (it’s Ghandi), but he was able to answer a question about who was on the American $100 bill on the show.  Jamal, as amazed as the investigator is, says, “They could have asked me that question and I wouldn’t be here right now, but they didn’t.”

This movie is really, really good.  It reminds me of City of God in a way for the obvious reasons, due to the slum life depicted.  Of course, this movie is a little more light-hearted and has a fairy tale path.  This movie is sure to garner a great sweep of support once it starts hitting smaller towns and gets pumped in the media a little bit more to the point that it becomes mainstream.  It’s kind of hard for a movie like this to gain steam in the US with no recognizable or American stars.  Danny Boyle, who has been making some gems this decade, might finally get the kind of accolades we thought he might after Trainspotting put him on the map.

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