2008 – Slumdog Millionaire

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Slumdog Millionaire – 2008

Let me just say right off the bat, I was completely surprised by this movie.  I have to admit that though I went into watching it with an open mind, my expectations were a little low.  I was not expecting much out of a film from a foreign country, half of which was in another language, using subtitles.  But not only did Slumdog Millionaire surprise me, it surprised the Academy, if not the world.  And I think it is important to mention that though the story takes place in India, this is not a Bollywood film.  It is actually a British movie, a fact I did not know.  Still, the original novel, called Q & A, was written by the Indian Author, Vikas Swarup.

The plot is three-fold: the far past, the recent past, and the present.  Each story is held tightly together to paint a large and colorful picture.  We start out by being asked a question, as if on a game show.  I can only give an approximation based on memory of the opening question of the film, but something like the following question came onto the screen: How did Jamal Malik know the answers to all the questions?  A. He guessed.  B. He cheated.  C. He studied hard.   D. It is written. (Meaning: it was fate.)

The whole thing takes place in Mumbai, India.  Jamal, played by Dev Patel, is being tortured by the police in a prison.  He is asked how a common slumdog could possibly answer all the questions right.  When they accuse him of cheating, the only answer he can give is that he knew the answers.  As he is being tortured, he has flashbacks of being on a game show.  He is on the set of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire.  The show’s host, Prem Kumar, played by Anil Kapoor, is asking him questions from a card.  The studio audience is waiting in silence for his answers.  Then he snaps back to the present and the torture continues.

The Police Inspector, played by Irrfan Khan, stops the torture and has him cleaned up.  He sits Jamal down and tries talking to him.  Again he is asked how he cheated.  Jamal insists that he is innocent.  He really knew the answers.  The Inspector tries a different approach.  He turns on a video of Jamal on the game show and goes through each question, asking how he knew the answers.

That is where the real magic of the story begins.  Jamal tells his story and the far past sequences begin.  He tells of how he grew up in the Juhu slums.  Dozens of children are shown running and playing on trash heaps.  The first question asks the name of an actor in a popular Indian movie.  Jamal recounts the tail of when the very actor in that film came down in a helicopter and signed autographs for the kids in the slum.  We are introduced to his brother Salim, who is self-serving and habitually mistreats Jamal.

The Police Inspector goes over more questions that Jamal answered correctly on the game show.  The questions get harder and harder.  The answers for each one can be found in a key story in Jamal’s life.  The questions are not always chronological in conjunction with his life, so the flashback sequences bounce back and forth between different periods in his childhood.  But through his interrogation, it soon becomes apparent that Jamal doesn’t care about the money he is winning or the game show.  His motivations, then, become unclear.  But all is eventually revealed when he tells of the most important event in his young life.

He tells of the day his mother was attacked and murdered during the Bombay Riots. He and Salim, now orphans, meet a young girl who has also lost her parents.  Her name is Latika.  Salim tries to reject her but Jamal defies his brother and welcomes her.  The three of them live in the garbage dump until they are picked up by Maman, played by Ankur Vikal, a cruel man who takes in orphans and teaches them to be street beggars.  He even goes so far as to mutilate the children, saying that a blind or deformed beggar can earn more money.

Without going too much farther into the plot, I will attempt to be brief.  Salim and Jamal escape Maman, but Salim betrays Latika and she is recaptured.  The brothers become petty thieves and con-artists.  Years pass and Jamal continues to search for Latika.  When they find her, Maman shows up and tries to take them all back into his custody.  But Salim pulls out a gun and kills him.  He then takes a job working for a crime boss.  He throws Jamal out onto the street, and rapes Latika.  Jamal grows up and continues to search for his beloved Latika, who has become the wife of Salim’s crime-boss employer.

All of this is relevant because the climax of the plot involves the far past, the recent past and the present as they come together.  The film turned into a romantic love story by the end.  It turns out that even though his varied life experiences allowed him to win millions of rupees, it is revealed that the only reason he was on the game show was because he once saw Latika watching the program.  He got on the show in the hopes that she would see him and find him.  That was why he never opted to take the money at each stage of the game, why he did whatever he could to stay on the program for as long as he could.  That was why he made it to the end and won the grand prize of $20 million rupees.

Interesting note:  The current exchange rate for $20 million rupees in USD is $411,600.00.

The film was so well constructed and so well acted that I quickly forgot that nearly a third of the dialogue was in the Hindu language with cleverly placed subtitle boxes appearing and disappearing on the screen.  Just like the country of India itself, they were colorful and pretty, not your common subtitles in yellow at the bottom of the screen.  Instead, they showed up all over the screen, always next to the character who was speaking.

When the time came for Jamal to answer the final question I didn’t know how the movie would end so I was completely caught up in Jamal’s story.  I wanted him to win and I wanted him to find his true love.  I wanted the happy ending.

And as for the game show aspect of the plot, all of India became caught up in the excitement as well.  He had become an overnight celebrity.  The fact that he was from the slums and that he was on the verge of becoming an instant millionaire caught the attention of the nation.  All of India tuned in to watch, the entire country hoping the same thing I was hoping for Jamal.

He is driven back to the studio to answer his final question.

Dev Patel, by far, was the best actor in the film.  He really did a fine job.  His portrayal of Jamal was honest and insightful.  He was so believable, both in the custody of the authorities, and as the nervous contestant on the game show.  He also handled the few brief love scenes with an earnest innocence that was an important quality of the character.

Freida Pinto played opposite Patel as Latika.  She was beautiful and had a smile that could light up a room, though the only scene in which she was able to show it was the tiny scene at the train station.  She sees Jamal and smiles at him and you instantly understand the passionate and yet unspoken relationship between the two characters.

Salim was played by Madhur Mittal.  He did alright, but his character had so few redeeming qualities, that I must admit, I tend to discount the actor along with the character.  Of course, I should not do that.  Mittal did just fine and played his part well.

Now, when I mention this trio of characters, I have referred only to the adult portrayals.  There were actually 6 child actors that played them at different ages.  They all did a good job.  The youngest Jamal, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, and the middle Salim, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, actually did a very good job.  As child actors go, they turned in some impressive performances.

Interesting note:  This little fact is taken directly from the IMDB website:  Director Danny Boyle placed the money to be paid to the three lead child actors in a trust that is to be released to them upon their completion of grade school at 16 years of age.  The production company has set up for an auto-rikshaw driver to take the kids to school every day until they are 16 years old.

However, another character who caught my attention was the host of the game show, Prem Kumar, played by Anil Kapoor.  He was very handsome and his role encompassed a bit more than his on-stage persona.  There were short scenes of him threatening Jamal, trying to unnerve him, trying to make him lose all the money.  He was shown to be visibly furious at Jamal’s success, an emotion which had to be suppressed when the studio cameras were rolling.  He had to pretend to encourage him to win.

In fact there was a wonderful scene when the filming of the game show was on a break.  Jamal and Prem were in the restroom together.  As Prem washes his hands he lets the hot water cover the mirror with steam.  He tries to tell Jamal that he wants to help him on the current question.  In the fogged-up mirror he writes the letter B, apparently giving him the answer to the question.  When they are both back on the stage, Jamal, knowing that Prem has already encouraged him to drop out, gets the question right by not choosing B.  It was a well done sequence.

Interesting note:  Danny Boyle originally wanted the actor who was the host of the final season of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire to play the game show host in the movie.  Anil Kapoor, the actor who ended up playing the role, had actually been a contestant on the show.  He had taken home $5 million rupees.

The movie was an impressive bit of film-making.  The story was almost like a sweet fairy tale, but more than anything else, it was a love story that was very well crafted.  It retained a sense of innocence and love all the way to the very end.  It was a feel-good movie that left me with a smile.  I was pleasantly surprised by how much I really enjoyed this film.

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