Hi everyone, I just saw Slumdog Millionaire on Saturday. It's one of the best films I've seen in a long time. I shall not dawdle any further and present you with my movie review.
Movie Review 15/2/09
Starring: Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto, Anil Kapoor
Directed by: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures and Pathé
How is it that a small, unassuming British film set in India with a cast where the only stars are unfamiliar to Western audiences and with no big studio backing is in the running for 10 Academy Awards, film’s highest accolades, including Best Picture?
A. The acting talent is unusually good
B. The creative and technical teams are geniuses
C. The Academy was feeling kinder than usual this year
D. It is written.
I’ll leave the answer to that question for the end of this review, you can take as long as you like, but you’ll have to decide on a final answer to lock in.
It is not everyday that a film with all the qualities listed above gets nominate for this many Oscars, let alone Best Picture. The film faces heady competition in the shape of films headlined by established Hollywood stars such as Brad Pitt and Mickey Rourke and British films do not usually receive consideration for the Best Picture. Therefore, there is something special about this gem of a film.
Jamal Malik (Patel) is a call center “chai-wallah”, or tea boy, who participates as a contestant in the game show Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? in order to find his lost childhood sweetheart Latika (Pinto). Inexplicably answering the questions posed to him correctly, the show’s smarmy host Prem Kumar (Bollywood star Kapoor) has him arrested on suspicion of cheating. Tortured and then interrogated by the Police Inspector (Irfan Khan) and his dim lackey Constable Srivinas (Saurabh Shukla), Jamal tells the story of incidences in his life that taught him the answer to each question.
The film comprises a series of flashbacks depicting how a young Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and his conniving and largely disloyal older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) eke out a living in the slums of Mumbai. They operate an outhouse latrine from which Jamal, desperate for the autograph of his hero Amitabh Bachchan, has to escape when his brother locks him in. One stormy evening, Jamal spots a girl standing in the rain and his older brother reluctantly lets her into their makeshift shelter, thus helping Jamal meet the love of his life Latika (Rubina Ali).
Their adventures take a less innocent turn when the three children are taken in by Maman (Ankur Vikal), the treacherous leader of a “begging syndicate” which uses children to bring in the money, mutilating them so they can bring in more. Discovering the ugly truth, Salim mounts a daring escape for the three children. Salim and Jamal manage to get onto a train, but Latika is left behind, spurring a lifelong desire in Jamal to find her.
Spanning the following years, the two brothers live atop and in-between rickety train cars, stealing food from the galley and hawking goods to travellers. They “graduate” to stealing tourists’ shoes and masquerading as tour guides at the Taj Mahal. In one particularly humourous sequence, Jamal describes the world heritage site as a “five star hotel” built by Emperor Shah Jahan for Queen Mumtaz Mahal and says the Queen died in a “traffic accident”.
After some years, Jamal ( Tannay Chheda) finally convinces Salim (Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala) to go with him back to Mumbai to find Latika (Tanvi Ganesh Lokar). They have a frightening encounter with Maman and experience the lethal power of firearms, which eventually helps Jamal answer a question regarding the inventor of the revolver. Reunited, the trio take up residence in an abandoned hotel. However, Salim kicks Jamal out in order to claim Latika as his own and ends up getting involved with mobster Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar), eventually becoming one of his high-ranking lieutenants.
Now their grown incarnations, the brothers have a bittersweet reunion and Salim (Madhhur Mittal) eventually facilitates the escape of Latika, sold as a wife to Javed. Jamal returns to the studio to answer the last question. A heart-stopping sequence has Jamal use his “phone-a-friend” option and has Latika rushing to the ringing cell phone given to her by Salim.
The film has so many good points it would be impossible to list them all in one review. While it is far from perfect, Slumdog Millionaire is emotionally affecting on so many levels; I have almost never found myself so drawn into the world of a film, and an exceptionally well-crafted world at that. Part of the reason is that I was a contestant on the Singaporean version of the gameshow as a nine-year-old. I took home S$1000 (which to a nine-year old was a very handsome, if not drop-dead gorgeous, sum), if you really must know, but that’s besides the point.
The film is based on the award-winning novel Q and A by Indian diplomat and novelist Vikas Swarup. The story takes all the classic elements movie audiences have grown to know and, in some cases, love, such as the victory of the underdog, the rise from rags to riches, the long-lost childhood sweetheart and sibling rivalry and tension. However, director Danny Boyle of such revolutionary British films as Trainspotting (1996), 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007) and ever the visionary, turns these conventions on their heads. He is also helped by the cultural aptitude of co-director Loveleen Tandan who makes obscure elements of Indian culture and history accessible to western audiences. The very intelligent thing that the filmmakers do is to take a typical Bollywood formula and trim off the excess for western audiences. For example, while characters do not break into spontaneous song and dance amid intense scenes, there is still a big ole-fashioned dance sequence during the credits.
Ultimately, the story is very character-driven so the quality of the acting is crucial to the success of the film. Thankfully, nearly all the actors flesh out their characters with emotion and believability, not once are there exagerrated gestures or forced lines noticeable onscreen. I realized that the personality of each of the characters is conveyed in just the faces of the actors alone: Dev Patel’s constantly clueless look belying someone who happens to know all the answers, Anil Kapoor easily communicating the slyness and charm of Prem Kumar, Frieda Pinto’s constantly worried expression portraying Latika as a hapless damsel-in-distress and Ankur Vikal’s evil smile as Maman just…creepy.
Special credit has to be given to the child actors who, despite being completely untrained and literally plucked off the streets and out of the real slums by Loveleen Tandan (who was also the casting director), display natural skill far beyond their years. There is also a remarkable consistency in the characterization of Jamal, Salim and Latika, even though each character is portrayed by three different actors.
However, it is the only star Anil Kapoor who ultimately steals the show with his nuanced portrayal of gameshow host Prem Kumar. He is obviously not rooting for Jamal, no matter how likeable the seemingly clueless “chai-wallah” appears. This rift between the slimy host and the street-smart contestant eventually develops into a veritable game of wits, this conveyed during some of the very best moments of the film. Kapoor wisely avoids overplaying the stereotype even though his Prem is a stock character. Despite the controlled environment of the Millionaire studio, Kapoor plays Prem with such dangerous unpredictability you never know how he might strike at the “slumdog” contestant next.
The atmosphere of the film is extremely magnetic, the smoky, over-populated Mumbai slums in stark contrast to the slick Millionaire studio and the hectic, modern atmosphere of the call center. The film has been blamed for exoticising or glamourising or even commercialising life in the slums, but I whole-heartedly disagree. I think that the filmmakers have strived to bring out all the different facets of life in India and while I’ve never been there myself, have to say that I was convinced that the film’s portrayal was fairly close to the real India. The slums look repulsive yet strangely beautiful and the cinematography alone makes one unable to help feeling a tinge of guilt looking at the ghastly living conditions, especially considering the relatively priveleged Singaporean lifestyle. Director of Photography Anthony Dod Mantle certainly deserves his Academy Award nomination for the many artistically-framed yet unpretentious scenes, as well as kinetic shaky-camera moments which he wisely does not overuse.
Having a television gameshow as the main plot point, the film brilliantly splices the format TV audiences would see (with closeups of the host and cotestant and the questions at the bottom of the screen) with behind-the-scenes footage of the inner workings of the set, including scenes of the producers in the control room. One particularly ingenious sequence has the movie camera pan directly behind the TV camera on set, producing a tense and eerily hynotising effect.
The air of the film is helped by the score by renowned Indian composer A.R. Rahman, also nominated for an Oscar. The kinetic, thumping music propels the film during its most intense moments. Of course, the memorable music of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? composed by by Keith and Matthew Strachan provide the tension during the studio scenes as well.
However, I feel the biggest contributor to Slumdog Millionaire’s success is the writing of Simon Beaufoy, famous for penning The Full Monty (1997). The scribe manages to seamlessly weave (pun not intended) the separate narratives from Jamal’s life into one cohesive story. All the acting and technical flair of the cast and crew would come to nought had it not been for Beaufoy’s remarkable interpretation of the original novel. Having a specific story behind the answer for the seemingly unrelated quiz questions is an ingenious storytelling device and one that the film rides on for its entire length.
So, back to the question I asked at the start of this review. I feel the answer should be the non-existent “all of the above”, but should I have to choose strictly I would say D. It is Written…very well. The resounding applause in the packed movie theatre I saw the film in is testament to that.
Jedd Jong Yue