I had read the Oscar buzz, heard the interviews, the near-undiluted praise from critics so when Slumdog finally came to my small town arthouse theater I was lined up for tickets! The movie began with Jamal being questioned by the police and rapidly went into a back and forth narration of the events in his life that “equipped” him for this show. In fact it is safe to say that Rab ne bana di life, KBC ke liye! My impression of the film can best be summed up when I tell you that within the first half hour I was ready to get up and leave the theater (one in our party who was more squeamish, did leave), but being the type who will read And Quiet Flows the Don to the last page no matter what, I persisted – and I was rewarded.
One need not look far for what the Bollywood influences on Danny Boyle were – the main influence was that he knew how to carry the audience along through cringe and horror inducing segments of squalor and brutality bound to make the affluent audience run home and sign up for “Feed a Child for pennies a day” in India, and squeeze tears out of the most cynical eyes. The beginning segments of slums and squalor and drudge and cruelty, peppered with poignant moments of humanity and some humor were a rapid zoom in and out of Mumbai a few years ago. A brief synopsis – Jamal and his brother Salim are orphaned in anti-Muslim violence, another waif Latika latches on to them thanks to Jamal’s inherent goodness winning over Salim’s inherent thuggishness. Many huge ups and downs later, Jamal is on KBC (he wants to find out where Latika is – this is her favorite TV show), and about to become a millionaire! It is childhood love you see, the forever kind. Danny Boyle makes this implausible story of Jamal plausible by showing us the chronology of the quiz show questions matching up with the chronology of Jamal’s existence. Yes, we believe! Fairy tales can indeed come true – NOT! But within all this implausibility, it is hard to not be engaged in the story, and as a humanist to believe that Jamal’s life could be a summation of the few positive things that could happen to each and every child living in the hellish slums of Mumbai. So cynics beware – you will hate much here. And naives/romantics – rejoice, as you will be uplifted by this tale.
The performances deserve mention. Irrfan Khan is good in a small but effective role; Anil Kapoor plays the unctuous and manipulative KBC host with style and panache (I am not a fan of Anil – so this is high praise from me). One can also see why neither Amitabh nor Shahrukh could or would have done this role – to do it would raise the possibility of some shadows cast on their stints as hosts. Jamal is first seen as a 7 year old who will dive into shit to get an autograph from his hero and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar plays this role with a combination of roiling energy and waif-like appeal, and as a pre-teen (played by Tanay Chheda) he steals shoes and cons tourists at the Taj Mahal! The near adult Jamal is played by the British actor Dev Patel and I think this is the weakest of the three Jamals. Patel has a clipped British accent that sits uneasily on a slumdog, and he seems mostly like a mooning teenager around whom events revolve. The youngest Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) is a thug from the get go, but still filial feelings run strong in him. The middle Salim discovers the power of a gun and changes the lives of Jamal and Latika. The older gangster Salim (played as an adult by Madhur Mittal) is never far from his slumdog roots in looks and sophistication, though living in the lap of criminal luxury, and finally gets his redemption near the end of the film. Latika (Rubina Ali plays the child) is first a shy and appealing child, full of mischief, then a child on the verge of teenage being groomed for a sad fate (Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar) and finally a dusky beauty trapped in an awful life (Freida Pinto). And Freida has the same issues that Patel has – that clipped British accent and a lack of any real acting. So I think the mistake Mr. Boyle made was of not picking homegrown actors for the roles – these polished actors never fulfilled the promise shown by the raw youngsters! These actors never really were convincing as people in love either.
The cinematography was bursting with color to the point of jarring, and never really was there any dreaminess to parallel the romance across years. But the claustrophobia of the slums of Mumbai, and the soaring skyscrapers of modern Mumbai were well captured in the film.
The soundtrack was brilliant. The songs were mostly used a BGM, and started with a bang as Ooo Saayaa wafted across and then went into the heavy percussion as the kids raced away from the cops to the sounds of “They can’t touch me” by MIA. It was exhilarating, and when the cop finally caught up and was told by the mother to let the kids go, you did not mind the silliness of the way the long chase ended. The other numbers were mostly heard in snippets until we discovered the child/woman Latika practicing dancing to Ringa Ringa. And at the very end the audience was getting up to leave when Jai Ho burst on the scene – everyone stopped and stay rooted to their spots until the song ended! I think it is safe to say that the audience was mostly a naïve one when it comes to BW, and this uplifting song/dance spectacle blew them away.
I give Slumdog Millionaire a solid 8/10 because I am not a cynic!
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