Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire / **** (R)

Jamal: Dev Patel
Youngest Jamal: Ayush Mahesh Khedekar
Middle Jamal: Tanay Chheda
Salim: Madhur Mittal
Youngest Salim: Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail
Middle Salim: Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala
Latika: Freida Pinto
Youngest Latika: Rubiana Ali
Middle Latika: Tanyi Ganesh Lonkar
Prem: Anil Kapoor
Police Inspector: Irrfan Khan

Fox Searchlight and Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Danny Boyle. Co-directed by Loveleen Tandan. Written by Simon Beaufoy. Based on the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup. Running time: 120 min. Rated R (for some violence, disturbing images and language).

People like many different kinds of movies. On any given week you can find a genre film to your liking. There are movies for people who like action, movies for people who like comedies. There are “chick flicks” and “gangster pics.” There are thrillers and social dramas. The best films don’t limit themselves to one particular genre but cross over into others to appeal to a broader audience. What makes Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” the best picture of the year is that it encompasses all these genres. It even dips into horror territory for a couple of scenes.

The story centers around the Indian version of the popular game show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” A young man is on the verge of becoming only the second contestant in history to win the show’s top prize. He is one of the many underprivileged of India’s largest city, Mumbai. He came from the slums. He is an errand boy. How does an errand boy know all the answers to get him to the final round of a game that even the country’s smartest individuals have failed achieve? Did he cheat? Is he really that smart? Is the show fixed? Or is it simply this boy’s destiny?

In an inspired example of cinematic wizardry, Boyle (“Trainspotting”, “Millions”) tells the boy’s story through a series of flashbacks inspired by the very questions he is asked on the game show to get him to the final round. He answers the questions correctly because he has lived the answers. The answers tell of a hard life, a tale of two brothers, Jamal and Salim, who lose their mother at an early age due to religious hatred. They are left to fend for themselves on the streets of Mumbai.

While on the streets, the boys gain a third companion, a girl named Latika. The three form a bond that will bind them together, even when separated. They refer to themselves as The Three Musketeers from Alaxander Dumas’s novel, although they only know the names of Athos and Porthos. Their adventures eventually land them in the care—if you can call it that—of street hustlers, who use orphans as beggars.

I won’t tell anymore of Jamal’s storied tale of a slum kid’s rise to potential millionaire. The journey is so much of the pleasure of this movie. It would be wrong to spoil where it takes these kids. Their tale takes various forms. Sometimes it’s a romance; sometimes it’s a road picture (or rail picture in this case), but it is always entertaining, always compelling. There are moments of terror and moments of humor, never a moment when you look at your watch or wonder whether you turned off your iron.

The actors are as vibrant and immediate as the story their characters tell. Three different sets of actors portray the three lead characters at different periods in their childhood and everyone is perfectly cast and perfectly captures their counterparts’ personalities. It is hard to imagine that three different sets of actors could so solidly portray the same set of characters. I’m reminded of Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries that has followed several people’s lives from the age of seven, catching up every seven years to see where each person is at that point in their lives. The people in these docs are already over 50, but there is no question that each person at 49 is the same person they were at 7. The three sets of actors used for these kids are like that. There is never any question that the little boy who plays Jamal at age 6 is the same character as the totally different actor that portrays him at 18.

I have not read Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q & A”, upon which Simon Beaufoy’s superb screenplay is based, but its story structure and philosophy is unshakeable. One scene in particular struck me as displaying the movie’s outlook and approach perfectly. The police inspector has just heard the story behind how Jamal knew the answer to the question “Which political figure is pictured on the U.S. $100 bill?” On the show Jamal answered correctly “Benjamin Franklin” even though as a slum kid he should never have learned who Franklin was or ever even seen a $100 bill. The inspector then asks Jamal who is pictured on the Indian 1000 rupee. “That was not the question I was asked,” Jamal states plainly. When the inspector informs him it is Ghandi, Jamal simply says, “I’ve heard of him.”

Perhaps it is impossible to know why that sequence struck me so without seeing “Slumdog Millionaire”; but this is a movie that is not simply the story that it tells, it is a spirit of storytelling that can only be captured in the film medium. For all the hardships the children in this movie live through, theirs is a story of hope, a story of love, a story of joy, a story of life. It is rare to find a movie that is so imbued with the life that it portrays. “Slumdog Millionaire” is a unique movie experience that bubbles up from the inside and springs forth to shower its audience with its treasures. This is the best movie in many a year.

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