Thursday, 12 February 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: A Review

Set in India, in Mumbai, director Danny Boyle's film tells the story of a slum kid who appears on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire". The film is a marvelous evocation of India, of the slum dwellings, the economic changes in India, as finance booms, so that the slums we begin with are replaced by gleaming office buildings, but there is still the seamy side of the Indian underworld, where gang leaders carve out their own fiefdoms. On the way, we also have the railways - always a central and defining part of India - and even the Taj Mahal! Yet this is just the background, sketched out in just enough detail, against which a wonderful personal narrative is constructed.

We start with the interrogation by a police officer of the central character, Jamal K. Malik, and the story gradually unfolds in flashback, as we learn why he is being questioned - for suspected cheating in the Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. And we move further back in flashbacks, as the way in which the questions unfold in the Quiz show dovetail with Jamal's remembering of his childhood in the slums, of how he and his brother scratch a living, and of his mother being killed in a savage attack on the Muslims by rioting Hindus; he and his brother Salim flee and escape, guided by a vision of the god Rama, and also save the girl Latika.

Rescue comes from the apparent benevolence of a man called Maman searching for children homeless and refugees, but he turns out to be a sinister gang leader, sending children out to beg, and in one sequence - not for the squeamish - his henchman mutilates one boy the brothers know in order that he can be a better beggar. The brothers escape, but lose Latika in their flight. They then take to a life of petty crime and become street wise, with Jamal on one memorable and very funny occasion, guiding a tourist couple around the Taj Mahal, with a commentary that is part fact, mostly fiction. This sequence moves into their teen years (the parts being taken by other actors, but brilliantly ones that capture the look and mood of the child actors). We see them now settled in part in work in fast food kitchens in Mumbai, and their encounters with the crime barons, and throughout this Jamal is haunted by the search for Latika, and never gives up hope. His brother betrays his trust at one point, but then redeems himself in one final act of sacrifice.

All this is told against the backdrop of the - by now almost conversational interrogation - by the police inspector, and the relentless tension of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, with its bearded charismatic host (although in private asides to Jamal, he shows his ruthless egoism), and the prize money in rupees gradually increasing as he gets questions right.

How Jamal eventually finds Latika, loses her, and finds her again - his personal quest - I will not reveal - you'll have to see the film! Did he win by cheating? No. Was it luck? Or, is it - in a wonderful way in which the film both starts and ends - simply that "it was written".

The leading stars are relative unknowns, but give brilliant and naturalistic performances (which is actually very difficult), and this is far from being an urban or domestic drama (good as those can be); as a result, it opens a window onto a refreshingly different world, and I can well see why it has run away with all kind of plaudits.

In terms of narrative construction, the versatile use of flashbacks (and interrogation to call forth memory) works extremely well. This non-linear approach reminded me very much of Ararat, the film about the Armenian genocide, which uses a similar technique to great effect. And don't miss the wonderful Bollywood-like dance sequence at the end while the credits roll.

Lastly, the conditions of poverty that come as the vast panorama reminded me of the wisdom of C.P. Snow, and the call upon our consciences to ensure that this is not just left alone. In an essay on Magnanimity, Snow wrote:

"I have said before, and I shall say it again, because it is the most imperative social truth of our age, that about one-third of the world is rich and two-thirds of the world is poor. By this I mean something very simple. In North America, in most of Europe, in Australia and New Zealand, and now in the Soviet Union, the great majority of the population get enough to eat and don't die before their time. That is what "riches" means, in a world whose harshness those of us born lucky don't willing admit.

In the rest of the world the opposite is true. The great majority of the population don't get enough to eat; and, from the time they are born, their chances of life are less than half of ours, These are crude words, but we are talking about crude things, toil, hunger, death. For most of our brother men, this is the social condition.

It is different from our social condition. That is one reason why there is a direct call upon our magnanimity. If we do not show it now, then both our hopes and souls have shriveled. It may be a longish time fore men at large are much concerned with hopes and souls again.

For the future is in our hands, if we care enough. The means exist for our seeing to it that the poor of the world don't stay poor. The scientific and technical knowledge which we now possess is enough, if we can find the human means, to solve the problem within a couple of generations. I do not pretend that it is going to be easy to find the human means-but the knowledge exists and, since it exists, no man of the faintest imagination or good will can rest easy."

C.P. Snow (Magnanimity)

Movie cast and details on Internet Movie Database

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