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Slumdog Millionaire

November 12, 2008  |  9:00am
Slumdog Millionaire
Danny Boyle’s latest jumps off the screen

Release Date: Nov. 12
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Simon Beaufoy

Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan
Studio/Run Time: Fox Searchlight, 120 mins.

The buzz around Danny Boyle’s latest film hit fever pitch when it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival this summer.
Two weeks later, Slumdog Millionaire picked up the People’s Choice Award at Toronto and the chatter intensified to “Oscar buzz.” At a screening, I heard comparisons to Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. Does it live up to the hype? For the most part, yes.

Propelled by a taut script from screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai who gets to the final round on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Certain that an uneducated tea server from the poorest class of society could never successfully answer so many questions without cheating, local authorities try to beat Jamal into a confession. Through a series of flashbacks, Jamal demonstrates how he’s learned the answers through his varied experiences growing up on the streets.

Stylistically, Slumdog Millionaire explodes off the screen with a frenetic energy I haven’t seen since Fernando Meirelles’ City of God. Filmed on location in Mumbai, the film conveys the Indian city’s wondrous vibrance. The city springs to life with throngs of people, rich colors, quick cuts, pulsating music, the spectre of skyscrapers hovering over Asia’s largest slum, shaky cameras following kids running through the streets, and a story constantly cutting back and forth in time.

Boyle’s latest covers a lot of ground (perhaps too much). Slumdog is a Dickensian rags-to-riches tale with a romance at the center. It’s also a suspenseful, feel-good sports drama (the game show standing in as a sport). All the while, the flashbacks show Jamal, his brother Salim and Latika, his soon-to-be romantic obsession, dealing with extreme poverty, classism, corruption, genocide and child prostitution.  This underbelly of society is handled with a light touch. While Boyle and Beaufoy want to address harsh reality, they clearly don’t want it to obscure the joy and vitality they’ve witnessed in the slums.

This may seem like sugarcoating, a crowd-pleasing strategy to deliver a well-told tale with a happy ending but little substance. Yet ponderous independent filmmakers anxious to display “gritty reality” often ignore their characters’ multifaceted inner lives. Slumdog explores them—the difference in the choices made by Jamal and his brother (who becomes a player in the Mumbai mafia) are stark and seem to make a statement about poverty and moral choice. While Meirelles’ work may lend itself better to polemics, Boyle’s more holistic portrayal engenders better understanding. This is a film with layers; I’m anxious to see it again and glean aspects I missed.

Slumdog Millionaire
combines (and outdoes) the style and energy of Boyle’s Trainspotting with the tenderness, sentimentality and accessibility of his overlooked family film, Millions. In lesser hands, his new picture would’ve come across as a gimmicky, sentimental, conventional and superficial mess. But Boyle (who also gave us the reinvented zombie thriller 28 Days Later and the ambitious sci-fi of Sunshine) has revealed himself to be a true master of the language of cinema, in all its dimensions.

A decade from now, we’ll look back at the recent crop of feel-good indie blockbusters with nostalgic fondness, but convey little import on them. Slumdog Millionaire, however, will stand as a stylistic triumph and an important evolution in Western cinematic depictions of India.

Watch the trailer for Slumdog Millionaire:

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