You may have to search a little bit for theaters showing this film, Readers, especially if you do not live in a big city. Your search will be well-rewarded; this is a wonderful story and a movie that will make you feel glad you devoted two hours of your life to it. If you’re not going to wait for it to come out on video or DVD, I also suggest that you seek out a theater with a good sound system because the soundtrack is a vital part of the experience.
Story: Jamal is a kid from the slums of Mumbai who could only find a job getting tea for telemarketing representatives in call centers. But he goes on the Indian Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and despite a seeming indifference to the money he is winning, he ascends to dizzying heights, correctly answering question after question. The program breaks for the night and he is questioned by the police, who want to know how someone of his background would know the answers to so many questions. In a story told in a series of flashbacks, Jamal tells the story of how he has tried to reunite with the woman he loves, reveals how he answered the questions, and explains why he went on the show in the first place before he returns to confront the final question for the staggering sum of twenty million rupees. (As I write, twenty million rupees would be about $400,000 in the US; one must imagine that kind of money goes pretty far in Mumbai.)
Script: A story told in flashbacks can seem disjointed and overly punctuated. After growing used to this device, though, it quickly starts to feel natural. The scriptwriter does a remarkable job of restraining the need for extended exposition, despite knowing that the story is intended for British and American audiences; he relies instead on the setting, the locations, and most of all on the actors to convey the emotion and the background necessary to know what is going on. This restraint pays off; the result is a visually rich film, in which what is seen and heard is as important as what is spoken. Also gratefully the script uses the many-tongued palette of languages spoken in India; not everything is translated into English and some characters switch back and forth between English and Hindi (or perhaps it was another language; I admit ignorance here) in the same sentence, requiring the viewer to make inferences from context about what is being said.
Cast: I’m not familiar with a lot of Indian movie stars, but the cast is utterly believable and convincing. The casting director did a really good job with casting children to play the younger versions of the three central characters in the movie; it is easy to imagine that these are all three the same person seen at different stages of growing up. In particular, the character of Jamal’s brother Salim demanded a fine touch from the actor, particularly the actor portraying the character in his teenage years, to convey the ambiguities and conflicts raging inside. All of the actors seem well-chosen for their parts, either as heroes or heavies, and not knowing if these are Big Movie Stars lifts the need to identify their off-screen personalities from the characters they portray.
Cinematography: The director adopts a number of Bollywood conventions for the movie. The characters are never seen kissing or engaged in any kind of sexplay, although this is implied in many scenes. The sensuality of the movie — not just sexual sensuality but other, less pleasant sorts of sensations the characters would experience — are well-conveyed also. The end credits scene also is an homage to the Bollywood tradition of song and dance in the movies. But this is not a Bollywood movie — it is considerably more violent — or at least, much more brutal in its violence — than something you’d expect to come out of Mumbai’s many studios and for that reason it is a good question in my mind whether the movie can be shown in India at all.
Costumes: Some thought must have gone in to getting the right look for the residents of Indian slums; as an American viewer I found it difficult to distinguish between the clothing worn by the Muslim and Hindu people but apparently the difference is more obvious to those from the culture. The heroine is almost always depicted wearing something yellow, which depending on who you talk to can mean either that she is in communion with the gods, that she represents success and wealth, or that she signifies rebirth and the promise of springtime. There may be more meanings yet to the color-coding that goes on in the film, but this is the most obvious. Also of note is the just-a-little-bit-too-tacky getup worn by the game show host.
Effects: This isn’t a science-fiction or even particularly an action movie. Most of the effects have to do with violence — gunshots and fighting and things like that. The violence is stark and not stylized. If you have a strong aversion to seeing violence against children, this might be a reason to avoid the movie; one scene in particular requires some makeup on a child actor and is particularly heart-rending. But the brutality of life in the underclass actually serves as a contrast for the better life that Jamal seeks to make for himself as a young adult, it provides a platform to understand why he reacts as he does to the police’s “enhanced” interrogation techniques.
Music: The soundtrack is powerful and emotionally compelling. The scenes on the set of the Millionaire TV show rely on the well-known theme music, and an extended sequence from Jamal and Salim’s childhood is scored with the unedited version of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes,” a joyously subversive hit song you may remember from earlier this year and one that is entirely appropriate for the scenes in which it is used. Other pieces will be less familiar to US/UK audiences but convey the rich and varied textures of Jamal’s life.
Comments: The director, Danny Boyle, is most famous here in the states for the movie Trainspotting, but he has done things with somewhat less grim subject matter as well. This movie is occasionally grim and depressing, but it is also uplifting and joyful at times. The progression of the story does not feel contrived or forced in any way, and the back-and-forth flow of the flashback-driven narrative, although it takes some getting used to, eventually makes sense. It is impossible not to be moved by the depiction of poverty and the classist society in which Jamal moves — there is not much mention of caste but the difference between rich and poor, and the mental suppleness that Jamal must use while moving back and forth between those two worlds, is in your face for the whole movie.
The most telling bit of dialogue in the movie was a deep and meaningful line from Jamal, when prompted to offer more of his story: “Bombay became Mumbai!” with a cut to rising office and condominium towers where the slums used to be. In three words, many layers of meaning, both personal and political, are conveyed; Jamal is not initially made any better-off by the modernization of the old slum, but a new set of opportunities and obstacles are laid atop the old ones.
A sensual tour de force and an ultimately joyful celebration of life, Slumdog Millionaire earns high marks from this reviewer. In the words of one IMDB reviewer, the movie’s only major flaw is that it comes to an end. I hope it is singled out for further recognition by the industry and I suspect that is part of the movie’s destiny.