It's that time of year when potential Oscar contenders are rolled out for the American public to examine and either embrace or dismiss. One small film that is starting to catch on is 'Slumdog Millionaire' a truly international effort – Indian actors, a British director, backed by an American studio. Currently it is playing in only about 600 screens but look for that to change come award season. From one standpoint it is a timeless story (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy…) that is told in a refreshing, at least from Western sensibilities, new way. In the past, few movies have tried to marry Hollywood and Bollywood with usually clichéd results that weren't very watchable for viewers of either, I surmise, western or eastern cultures. 'Slumdog Millionaire', has broken that curse.
For anyone who has read Charles Dickens, you will recognize the desperation of poverty in an economy in flux. The main story involves the relationship between two brothers born right before India's industrial/service age took hold. Muslim and living in a large slum the brothers make do with unconventional playgrounds, intriguing ways to make pocket rupees, and overcrowded (as in literally wall to wall students) classrooms. The tale is told in flashback as the younger brother is interrogated by police who assume the only way he could be so close to winning 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire' is by cheating – after all, people with his background do not even know the answer to questions that the average five year old does. Of course the detectives are missing the real intrigue; it isn't about how Jamal knows the answers, but why he is on the show in the first place.
'Slumdog' is further remarkable in that the first half of the story is told in Hindi (I believe it is Hindi) with English subtitles. According to an interview on 'Fresh Air' director Danny Boyle, of 'Trainspotting' fame, originally the youngest of the trio of child actors were going to play their parts in English but their performances were stiff, convinced that they would be better in their native tongue Boyle allowed them to do just that and the results are brilliant. It should be noted that the children were all native to the Mumbai slum in which the movie was filmed. (It is rumored that Boyle set up a trust fund for the young actors.)
As befit for any film out of India, there is an elaborate dance sequence in the end which is a nice touch considering that some elements of the story feel as if they are borrowing the essence of 'The Godfather' films. What I liked most about 'Slumdog' is that it is a story that hasn't been told before to American audiences, which is a nice change of pace from so many films whose themes we have seen again and again and again and….
My only quibble is the R rating. Really, R? Granted, there are some mature scenes which imply prostitution, violence, and in an extreme case the blinding of a child BUT these scenes are no more shocking than many in PG-13 films. Take the summer blockbuster 'The Dark Knight'. I loved the movie and most of all I loved Heath Ledger as the Joker, yet for family fare (as in child friendly) the violence is really over the top. In one scene a bomb in planted inside a Joker flunkie resulting in a police station blowing up. To drive my point home, TOYS WERE MADE based on 'The Dark Knight'. As far as 'Slumdog' goes, even the scene involving the blinding of the child is not shown graphically. If you are queasy about it, as I was, simply look away. This sort of thing should be upsetting to people not because it is in a movie BUT because there is an understanding that in some parts of the world the blinding of a child in order for him to be a more effective beggar is not so far-fetched. Although this isn't a Disney film for the divorced parent to take the kids on their weekend on, it isn't something that should be forbidden to a mature child of eight and upwards to be shielded from. If anything, at least in the United States, it shows how lucky children are that despite poverty they are at least given a realistic chance at education (if only more would take advantage of it). Okay enough of my soapbox rambling.
Overall, if you are looking for a meatier movie to watch this winter that affirms life yet doesn't sugarcoat it, that is not the type of 'Christmas movie' that makes you want to call the Suicide Hotline afterwards, and isn't about a lovable ill-behaved dog (which may or may not die in the end) then 'Slumdog Millionaire' is the movie to see.
Westerfield © 2008