At last, the “Slumdog Millionaire mania lands in Egypt, backed with eight Academy Awards, worldwide grosses of more than $240 million and an irresistible aura of cheerfulness and optimism for the bleak economic times of ours.
I saw the film prior to its big Oscar win and wrote that I haven’t been caught up by the buzz surrounding it. I gave the film a second shot and went to see it this week on the big screen (the print shown at Nile City Cinema is rather strangely poor, I must warn). I enjoyed the film more the second time around, succumbed to the splendor of India and director Danny Boyle’s brilliant dynamic direction.
My opinion of the film though remains unchanged: “Slumdog is a highly entertaining love-conquers-all/Dickensian tale with solid craftsmanship and two highly appealing leads (Dev Patel and Freida Pinto); a gorgeous piece of pure escapism. It’s not, however, a great film and, most certainly, not the year’s best picture.
The film opens at a Mumbai police station. Jamal Malik (Patel, from British TV drama “Skins ), is being harshly interrogated for suspicion of cheating in the Indian version of famous game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
Jamal – a gangly chai-wallah (tea boy) working in one of Mumbai’s newly furnished call centers – has hit the jackpot, winning 10 million rupee; a feat, the police inspector tells him, doctors, lawyers haven’t come close to achieve.
“What can a slumdog possibly know? the inspector asks him. “The answers, Jamal replies. “I knew the answers.
Over the course of the film, Jamal chronicles the story of his life, revealing how every answer for every question was informed by his harsh childhood and turbulent adolescence.
Born into an unwelcoming world stricken with poverty and deprivation, Jamal and his brother Salim are orphaned at a young age, witnessing their mother murdered in an attack perpetrated by a group of Hindi extremists (the two brothers are Muslim). The pair is joined by another orphan: Latika, who becomes the love of Jamal’s life.
The three soon meet a Fagin-like ruffian who exploits young homeless kids, inflicting them with permanent disabilities for all sorts of illegal child labor.
Jamal and Salim manage to escape, hopping from one train to another until they’re thrown at the sight of the Taj Mahal where they steal tourists’ shoes, pretend to be guides and, in the funniest scene of the film, make up stories about the history of the place from thin air.
Jamal continues the search for Latika, finding her, losing her and then finding her again while Salim drifts gradually into Mumbai’s modern crime. In fact, the story of “Slumdog largely boils down to Jamal’s quest of finding and uniting with Latika. His wish to participate in “Who Wants to be a Millionaire is, as we find out later, simply an attempt to locate Latika (the game show is Latika’s favorite TV program). Money, ironically, was never his main target.
“Slumdog is modern fairytale; an “Oliver Twist for the globalized 21st century. Like Dickens’ iconic characters, Jamal is a decent, kind-hearted kid who remains uncontaminated by all the wickedness that surrounds him before fate, God or good fortunes ultimately reward him.
Boyle’s Mumbai is a grittier version of Dickens’ 19th century London. Both cities are on the brink of complete transformation, embracing industrialization and setting up a new hybrid culture that constantly clashes with diminishing old mores and traditions. Perhaps one of the most fascinating facets of Mumbai that Boyle repeatedly highlights is the stark contrast between its impoverished past and sparkly present; between the tall skyscrapers and the shoddy slums that continue to stand side by side.
For a film regarded as the best feel-good movie of the year, “Slumdog offers plenty of tragedies before reaching its final destination. Boyle touches upon every conceivable nightmare a child could face, from religious prosecution and physical abuse to forced prostitution and organized crime. Present Mumbai isn’t depicted in the most flattering of lights as well; Boyle and his scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy (“Dirty Pretty Things, “Eastern Promises ) don’t flinch from tackling police torture, class discrimination and the rise of a nouveau riche strain.
Yet Boyle astonishingly manages to create magic out of this wretched reality, producing a grand love letter to India; a hymn to the strength and willpower of the ordinary folks.
I’ve always been a great admirer of Boyle. From his debut in 1994 with the stylish thriller “Shallow Grave, the apocalyptic horror “28 Days Later, the sweet and charming children fable “Millions and the underrated existential sci-fi “Sunshine, Boyle has grappled with different genres and themes; an approach that propelled critics not to take him seriously.
The massive success of “Slumdog aside, Boyle, I believe, will always be known as the director of “Trainspotting – the greatest British film of the 90s – primarily because his Oscar winning piece is nowhere as edgy and challenging as his sophomore effort that ushered an entire new era for British film-making.
Boyle’s distinctive, vibrant visual style is on full display in “Slumdog. The film is a dazzling cocktail of colors and sounds, moving with a breakneck pace and invigorating energy. “Slumdog brims with lots of life, with an unyielding belief in love, innocence and compassion.
What downgrades the film from reaching real greatness is the overtly melodramatic tone that taints several parts of the film. The first half of the film is nearly flawless; a crossing between Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God and Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay! . Boyle throws his audience inside the narrow Mumbai slums from the first scene, maintaining a focus on the plight of his protagonists.
On the other hand, the second half of the film feels like an average, frustratingly insipid Bollywood flick crammed with too many false notes. In one scene, Jamal tells Latika to elope with him. “And live on what? she asks him. “On love, he replies. At that point in the film, I couldn’t help shouting out loud; “Seriously?
And then it just gets worse and worse, trotting in an exceedingly predictable and graceless course. In addition, nearly all characters – apart from the envious, morally conflicted Salim – are two-dimensional, especially the game-show host whose antagonism towards Jamal is neither believable nor well-justified.
The one scene I clearly remember from the second half of the film is the short, understated phone conversation between Jamal and Latika near the end of the film. The scene is charged with so much longing, elation and passion. Very few words are required; the emotions simply come across without the need for explicit articulation.
The much talked-about ending, coupled with a cheesy yet delightful Bollywood dance number, ultimately saves the film and, I must admit, I left the theater with a big smile on my face.
The success of “Slumdog comes as no surprise to me. The film is a rags-to-riches tale; the type of story Hollywood built its empire upon. In fact, the story is somehow emblematic of the American dream: An underdog overcoming impossible obstacles to eventually get both the girl and the money.
The American dream has by now turned into a nightmare, and a story of “Slumdog’s ilk would’ve been deemed cheap and unbelievable had it been set in New York for instance. Mumbai, with its booming economy and new-found set of prospects, thus becomes the perfect backdrop for such a story.
The reality is naturally quite different from the film; no wonder the film didn’t fare that well in India. Yet, like the Mumbai residents portrayed in it, people want to believe in a character like Jamal, that with hard work and purity of heart, hardships could conquered.
For a film to present such a much-needed dose of hope is no small feat.
Above all, the success of the film is testament to Boyle’s undisputable prowess for taking hawkish material and refurbishing it into a winning work that has become a success story in its own right.
I hope it’s time now for Boyle to get back to basics and take on the long-awaited “Trainspotting sequel “Porno. It will never be as popular as “Slumdog but I have a gut feeling that it could end up being a much superior film.