Friday, January 30, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Shall we call it great entertainment? Shall we call it an eye-opening look at life among the poor in the overcrowded slums of modern Mumbai? Slumdog Millionaire is both, and it is well worth seeing on either count. Director Danny Boyle has infused the tale of a street-kid who makes his way onto a game-show with extraordinary color, life, and energy, and he has structured the plot with an ingenuity that the young Orson Welles might have admired. The film's hero, an unlikely contestant on the Indian version of “Who Want to Be a Millionaire,” but the story has very little to do with the question—Will he win it all? The question is, How does he know the answers? And this device allows us to share in the grim and gritty experiences that have shaped our young hero's life.

Some have criticized director Danny Boyle for belittling the grinding poverty of the Mumbai slums by making it look pretty. Yet others have described the film and unduly grim. Is the film brutal? Yes. But certainly less so that the recent James Bond thriller, Quantum of Solace. The first fifteen minutes are rough sledding, but once we’ve become acquainted with the protagonist, his brother, and their young female friend, the film takes wing, setting a pace and following a course with more than enough twists and turns that keeps us on the edge of our seats until the final credits. And in any case, life among the poor and homeless in modern Mumbai is brutal. What we feel as the story unfolds (perhaps without thinking about it much), is how resilient and ingenious children can be. (And we are deluding ourselves if we imagine that we have removed ourselves once and for all from the cold hard realities of life on the edge. They’re right around the corner.)

Slumdog Millionaire may be said to be an amalgam of (and a tribute to) the cultural references contained within it—not only Who Wants to be a Millionaire but The Three Musketeers and the opera Orpheus and Euridice, which is being performed in one scene as the two brothers pickpocket the wealthy members of the audience from beneath the bleachers. Adventure and romance, in other words; it is part “Band of Brothers” and part “I've got to go back and get the girl.” The hurley-burley milieu has been compared with Charles Dickens' London, but it is not as rich and socially multi-faceted as all that. The main criticms that could be leveled against the film, I think, is not that it is too gritty, but that it is too sentimental. And that is hardly a criticism at all.

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