It would be tempting to dismiss Slumdog Millionaire as ‘City of God: Bombay edition’ — a kinetically-shot tale of rags to riches — or a curry-flavored Legends of the Fall — in the sense that it features two brothers in conflict over a girl. But I’ll let it be what it is, which is a crowd-pleasing tale of a young man whose whole life has been leading up to a single question on the most dramatic of the rhetorically-named game shows, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
The story has an elemental potency. It is the story of Salim and his brother Jamal, two incorrigible kids growing up in a Bombay slum. When they are orphaned by a religious purge, they take up with another orphan, Latika, who will grow up to be the most beautiful woman in India. They are separated from her by a Fagin-like character named Maman. Maman runs an orphanage like a school for beggars, and Salim and Jamal manage to escape his clutches. Latika is not so lucky. When they boys get older, they set out to free her. But after she is free from Maman, the brothers part ways over who will be her lover. A slum lord named Javed eventually puts further distance between Salim and his brother and the love of his life. To get their attention, Salim manages to become a contestant on the most-watched show in India, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
The story is told with great panache. Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and Loveleen Tandan (Monsoon Wedding 2nd Unit) and written by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) based on the novel by Vikas Swarup, the movie has a flashback structure built around Salim’s answers to the gameshow questions that keeps it constantly moving. How did a slumdog come to know such hi-falutin’ knowledge? If you don’t like movies where fate plays a key part, Slumdog is not for you.
The acting is a bit uneven. I love the kids who play the young Salim and Jamal. The older versions are less credible. Dev Patel’s Salim seems to have only one facial expression: bewildered. Irfan Khan, as the not-torture-averse police chief, is starting to get typecast. My favorite acting is Anil Kapoor playing the smarmy host of “Millionaire” (a part played in real life by Amitabh Bachchan). I wish Frieda Pinto’s Latika had more to her character than to stand and look pretty.
As far as bilingual, crowd-pleasing recent films go, I still prefer JCVD to Slumdog. It might be because I figured out what the final question would be early on in the film. It might be because my expectations were ridiculously inflated by a friend who has already seen it three times. It might be because the characters were sometimes more archetypal than fully-realized. I kept getting the feeling that a Western writer and director were over-emphasizing the otherness of the Indian setting, although I don’t have any proof of that other than the Bollywood dance sequence shoehorned into the credits.
In any case, Slumdog is a great sign that the movie season is moving to that time when the awards-worthy monsoon begins. Batten down the hatches.