Thursday, December 11, 2008

Movies: Slumdog Millionaire

If Slumdog Millionaire is a fairy tale, then it’s more in line with the original, Grimm versions where toes are hacked off than the Disneyfied takes where little mice help you get dressed. There’s plenty of magic, sweetness, and a happy ending, sure, but Danny Boyle and Co. spare no amount of grit in getting you there.

Thanks to Boyle’s deft direction and Simon Beaufoy’s tight screenplay, Slumdog flits effortlessly back and forth between two narratives. One has the grown Jamal (Dev Patel) defending his winning streak on the Indian version of Who Want to Be A Millionaire? to the suspicious authorities who don’t believe that a “slumdog” could get so many answers right without cheating. The other narrative shows the younger Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as the Youngest Jamal, whose scenes are all in Hindi with subtitles in contrast to the rest of the film’s English, and Tanay Chheda as Middle Jamal) growing up in the slums, falling in love with Latika (played by Freida Pinto, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, and Rubiana Ali from oldest to youngest), sparring with his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail), and learning everything a young slumdog needs to know to survive (and win a game show).

The prize money is hardly the point for either the movie or Jamal, who only went on the show to attract the attention of his lost love Latika. The real thrust of the story is Jamal’s rough and tumble childhood and unflagging devotion to Latika. Slumdog spins admittedly familiar elements – star-crossed love, a ragtag group of orphans overseen by a menacing Fagin-like figure (Ankur Vikal), brothers at odds – through the kaleidoscope of Mumbai and Indian culture and winds up with something utterly entrancing. As the movie unfolded at the tiny Angelika Theatre in downtown New York City I noticed something amazing. The after-work audience, who started out as restless and chattery as after-work audiences tend to be after being trapped in cubicles for eight hours, quieted down, becoming entirely engrossed in the film, until – to my immense chagrin - I realized I could perfectly hear the squeaking of my Chucks against the floor. (I was engrossed, but that didn’t make me any more able to sit still after spending eight hours at a desk.) It’s hard to think of many flaws to nitpick. The movie makes its only stumble at the very, very end, when clumsy, saccharine dialogue is used where silence would have resounded louder, but this little misstep can be forgiven in light of all the beauty that precedes it. Slumdog is a simple story, beautifully told.

It was, however, difficult to watch the scenes in Mumbai in light of the recent terror attacks on the city, especially when anti-Muslim crusaders attack the slums in a scene rivaling the gunning down of Bambi’s mother for sheer heartbreak, but Slumdog is nothing short of a love letter to the city – warts and all – and the joyful, Bollywood-style dance scene at the end goes a long way towards applying a bit of balm to the still-raw situation.

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