Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

One day I wanna be a star/ So I get to hang in a bar/ I'll go to Vegas with the playas/ Just to forget my scars

Something of a retroactive review since I saw Slumdog Millionaire over a month ago but since it has now been showered with more awards than any normal shelf could possibly hold, I think it's my duty to actually write about a film which has been so acclaimed and seems to have chimed with so many people (myself included).

Mumbai, 2006. Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a Chai-wallah from a call centre, is one question away from winning the top prize on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Since he could only have reached this point by cheating outrageously, the police take him away and subject him to a night and day of interrogation and torture in order to find out how he knew the answers. As Jamal relates his story, his whole life unfolds before our eyes, and it becomes apparent that the money is of no concern to Jamal, when love is on the line.

There have been a lot of films made in India, it does have one of the most vibrant and prolific film industries in the world after all, and there have been a lot of Western films set in India, often focusing on how mysterious and/or spiritual the country appears to the eyes of Westerners. However, compare the depiction of Indian life shown in Slumdog Millionaire to that of, say, The Darjeeling Limited, and they might as well be set on different planets. Unlike most western productions set in the country, Slumdog Millionaire is not about Westerners finding themselves in a new culture, it is about submerging its audience in a world which they have never seen before. It's a film that revels in the shock of the new, or at least in the shock of the old seen through new eyes. Danny Boyle's camera takes us straight down into the slums of Bombay/Mumbai, follows its protagonists with a matter of fact style that tries to portray the lives of these people with as much realism as possible, and doesn't shirk away from the moments when its characters are put through terrible pain or degradation.

This approach could seem out of place, however, when you consider the fairytale nature of the film's plot; a young man, through a series of coincidences that in more than one instance seem terribly contrived, has learned the answers to a series of questions on a game show, aims to stay on said game show in the hope that the love of his life sees him and gets in contact with him. It could be a tough pill to swallow, but the sheer energy of the film carries it along and, somehow, these two opposing disciplines meld into a beautiful, exciting whole.

'Exciting' is probably the best word to describe Slumdog Millionaire. From the scene in which young children are chased through the slums by overweight police officers, soundtracked by M.I.A. and A.R. Rahman, the film never lets up. Rahman's music, especially, is central to the success of the film, both creatively and commercially, as he combines traditions of both Indian music and Western pop music to create a truly original sound that perfectly complements the story and the performances.

And what performances! Now, the adults are great (particularly Anil Kapoor as the host sleazy host of WWTBAM) but the film rightly belongs to its child stars, all of whom manage to give performances that are funny yet moving, naive yet worldweary, gentle yet tough. There's none of the studied affectation that you find with a lot of child actors, just pure honesty. They are so good that they do upend the film somewhat, making the early segments more fascinating than the latter ones, but they also make it possible to truly care for Jamal and his search for his lost love, Latika (Freida Pinto, surely the most beautiful thing in any film released this year?)

I love love love Slumdog Millionaire. I've seen it twice now and I imagine that I will watch it time and again. It's a beautiful and touching film that, like It's A Wonderful Life and The Shawshank Redemption, earns its moments of happiness by plunging us into darkness, death and despair. It's wonderful.