January 19, 2009

Slumdog is Mumbai Movie Magic

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Slumdog Millionaire is a riotous, colorful fairy tale of epic proportions, filmed with the greatest of tenderness in the dirtiest districts of Mumbai. The film opens to the big bass and bumpin’ beat of M.I.A. following the escape of neighborhood kids from the police. Sure, the cops are grown men on motorcycles, but the kids clearly have the upper-hand of it—running through the ins and outs of the neighborhood, they lure the cops into their own territory. Slumdog Millionaire is filmed with such casual intimacy that you can smell the garbage, taste the spices, touch the purple and gold silk drying between rooftops. It’s a tale worthy of the epic poets, about a boy growing up and his fated love for the girl of his dreams. Story lines so tragic that they may have bogged down other filmmakers in despair become instead sparkling jewels found in the mud-splattered gutters that make up India’s largest city.
The film, by Danny Boyle, centers around the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” The American TV show of the same name is about instant rags-to-riches, the quick way to the American dream; Slumdog Millionaire, on the other hand, is about a Cinderella story that is anything but easy. The candidate is a lowly chai-wallah, an awkward 18-year-old kid who serves tea to telemarketers calling British homes abroad. Jamal (Dev Patel), in the hot seat, is taunted by the show’s host about his job, his poverty, his roots in the slums. Regardless, Jamal seems to magically know the answer to each question — and the audience of the show evolves from antagonizing him to seeing their own dreams come alive in his success.
But ultimately nothing for Jamal is easy, and the show’s creators believe that he is cheating. Jamal, after undergoing interrogation that verges on torture, tells the story of his life — a story that poignantly illustrates how, by a twist of fate, each of the posed questions relates to an episode from his youth. These vignettes about him, his brother and his childhood friend Latika, expose the underside of Mumbai with all its delights and deviances. The setting, however, pales in comparison to the performances by the two youngsters who play young Jamal and his brother (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail respectively). Their childhood loyalties and loves become the only constants in their lives as they confront religious riots, the wealthy mob and the worst of greed and evil. Jamal and his brother, however, seem always upward moving and optimistic; the film never lingers on the squalor of poverty or the greed of wealth and power but rather on moments of companionship and simple joy.
Why is this film so appealing? Because it neither is a tragic tale preaching about horror abroad nor a fairy tale spun purely from sugar and sparkles. The divide between the good guys and bad guys is always crystal clear, not because the filmmakers choose to ignore the complexity of life, but because of a constant belief that good will ultimately triumph. Danny Boyle’s film about Jamal and his journey through youth showcases a constant ability to see hope even in the worst situations. Slumdog Millionaire reaffirms fairytales from childhood with an adult’s perspective on the many wrongs in the world. Jamal’s successes, small and large, are un-clichéd portrayals of human resilience. Visions of Latika, Jamal’s love, in a swirling yellow and gold sari punctuate the film, reminding us that there is a happily-ever-after, even in what seems to be the darkest moments.