SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)

slumdogMost of the time, when you see someone succeed, there is an obvious rationality to it. Some mixture of innate ability and privileged position. Then there are the occasional people you see coming out on top, and you just have to ask: Why them? The people who make you wonder if there is some guiding hand of destiny. This is the question that Slumdog Millionaire poses at its opening, as impoverished Mumbai orphan Jamal Malik prepares to answer the final question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (In multiple choice format, of course.) Is he lucky? A genius? Cheating? Or, “it is written?”

Assuming Jamal to be a cheat, he is arrested and interrogated by the police. He withstands torture, but explains his success. Every question of the game has – quite improbably- echoed episodes of his own life; his childhood on the streets of Mumbai with his brother Salim and fellow orphan Latika, their involvement with exploitative underworld figures, his estrangement from Salim, and his long quest to reunite with Latika. 

It had been a while since I had watched this film and I was as riveted the second time as I was the first time. Maybe it’s just something I was born with – the desire for the “it is written” in the world. The mystical, the preordained – that guiding hand. It’s a subject Mouse and I have disagreed over in the past – whether or not destiny is real. I think this film appeals to me so much because it lands on my side. It is real; it is magical. 

One thing that bothered me a little in the film, though it really was not that big of a deal, was that I thought the different actors playing Latika at different stages were not believable as being one continuous person. I can understand this when you are casting a child and an adult, but the middle-tiered castings were very confusing to me when put against the final actor who plays adult Latika. That’s not here or there, but it really would be my only critique of this film. 

The music of Slumdog Millionaire is fantastic; it adds drama, flair and modernity. I love the inclusion of songs from the genius herself M.I.A. We also all know that the dance sequence at the end is one of the most epic to grace the screen of any major motion picture. I feel sparkly and joyful inside just thinking about it. 

I think the film may be playing a little more coy with its “it is written” than is obvious. Just where is it written? Go back to the autograph scene from the beginning. It’s set up to tell us everything we need to know about these two characters. Salim is the more ruthless brother. Jamal, on the other hand, exhibits this insanely single-minded focus on getting to what he wants. He is not going to be deterred by hardship or common sense. This is the trait that leads him to Latika on the train platform. So, it is written, yes. But as a guiding metaphysical hand of? Or written in Jamal’s character? 

My problem with casting isn’t continuity issues with single characters. It’s that Freida Pinto appears visibly older than Dev Patel in their scenes together. They’re characters that are supposed to be roughly the same age, but he looks like a kid trying to hit up an adult woman (although I have since learned that Patel and Pinto began a real-life romantic relationship, so: in my face.)

Stylistically, Danny Boyle really shows the influence of the music video. Not that his movies are two hour music videos, but there is a briskness to his visual style. Like Trainspotting, if you wandered into this movie at certain times, you could make the mistake of thinking the endemic poverty of the Global South is a groovy good time. (The scene where little kids get their eyeballs burned out by gangsters should disabuse one of that notion.) Not as pronounced here as in 28 Days Later, but Boyle isn’t afraid to embrace the look of digital video onscreen. Not my favorite visual style, but I suppose it’s time to welcome myself to the 21st Century. It’s not like I ever take a picture with anything that has film in it. 

I hear this critique, Mouse, but I think he was trying – and I would argue successfully so) to bring in an audience with this groovy, hip soundscape and representation. Did you want more of a pervasive feeling of misery? I can hear that, but I also think part of why he chose such a modern look and feel was so that people here in the US and in other western markets heard sounds they related to and could realize that this was all taking place in contemporary times – as is poverty. It’s not a long-forgotten era, sadly – and I think that might have been a good strategic choice on his part. 

Maybe it’s Dev Patel’s totally heartwarming character in this film but it is hard to not fall in love with him watching this. Lion, too, I suppose. It’s one of the strongest examples I can think of where a character is simply such a protagonist, so charismatic, so loveable that you remember him for weeks after the movie is over. I don’t blame Pinto for falling for him. 

Look, I’m not bashing Patel. I love Dev Patel. There’s no one I’d rather have play the grown up version of a child living rough on the streets of India. I’m just pointing out the visible age disparity between himself and the female lead, whose character is supposedly the same age as his. If there’s a casting choice I would reconsider, how much does Freida Pinto do in this movie, other than look beautiful?

Oh no, I didn’t think you were. Per your question, though, people love beautiful. And Freida Pinto is beautiful. I don’t think she acts the character poorly either. She’s fine. 

I am really glad we revisited this classic. I just wanna listen to M.I.A. and watch the dance sequence on repeat all winter long. What a fantastic and moving film. 

Also nominated in 2008:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Frost/Nixon
Milk
The Reader

Next film: BEN HUR (1959)

 

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