The best move of the year (so far) wears its Dickensian spirit and soaring optimism shamelessly and proudly on its tattered, slumdog sleeves. Slumdog Millionaire, director Danny Boyle’s cinematic triumph, demands and requires the audience to immediately believe in destiny. One that has already written the fated union of two slumdog lovers, Jamal and Latika, from an abundant inkwell overflowing with all the vibrancy, chaos, joy, despair and hope that defines modern day India. However, I warn the audience: you will have to abandon your inner cynic and 21st century nihilist to truly relish the movie’s sentiments. If not, then you won’t understand or appreciate its big-hearted intentions.
Slumdog Millionaire is essentially a fantasy wrapped around the brutal realities of modern day India. It doesn’t gloss over the terrifying pain and overwhelming sadness of a society somehow surviving, living and thriving amidst immense poverty and chaos. In fact, it tackles these hardships head on but with a jolting immediacy and joie de vivre that is rare in modern day movies that easily lend themselves to gloom and despair.
Movies with such bold, grand ambitions usually falter in their narrative, sacrificing pacing, story and dialogue for visual grandeur. Thankfully, Boyle’s ever-visceral camera and aesthetic gift of illuminating and beautifying even the darkest regions of humanity is anchored tightly by Simon Beaufoy’s solid script based on Vikas Swarap’s novel, Q & A.
Our illiterate, young protagonist Jamal sits as a contestant on India’s most popular game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, one question away from hitting the jackpot. Before he can answer, the show ends dramatically to amp up ratings for the next night’s “final question” extravaganza. Flabbergasted at his lucky streak, the police are convinced this slumdog cheated his way to the top, and thereafter proceed to brutally torture and interrogate him to elicit how he did it. Jamal, played with open faced sincerity and resolve by Dev Patel, proceeds to recount how each answer can be traced back to a defining moment in his tumultuous, unbelievable life. It starts with him as a toddler, slumdog orphan surviving through sheer resourcefulness and chutzpah living on India’s merciless skid row and ends with him facing the smarmy game show host played well by Bollywood star Anil Kapoor.
And thus the motion is set for a whirlwind of electrifying energy and powerful vignettes that both increase our suspenseful desire for Jamal to find his “destiny” as well as simultaneously highlighting the bipolarity of modern day India. A nation steeped in Bollywood, poverty, child servitude, international telemarketing centers, crime, and ultimately hope.
However, even the sadness is played to colorful and soulful tune that personifies the characters’ lust for life. The tragedies are never romanticized nor sanitized to cater to mainstream affectations, and they refuse to inhibit the boundless energy that drives our protagonist’s journey.
As with most quests, this one involves a woman, the love of Jamal’s life, Latika, played by stunning newcomer Freida Pinto. A relationship forged and separated by tragedy becomes the relentless driving force of Jamal, who enters as a contestant on India’s most watched show just so he can be discovered by his long lost love, wherever she may be.
As mere toddlers, Jamal and his older brother Salim witness the brutal, traumatizing death of their mother at the hands of an enraged mob, and they subsequently begin a lifetime of running. Along the way, they acquire Latika and become the “Three Musketeers” by banding together after surviving the horrific religious riot. Their kinetic life, mirrored exquisitely by Boyle’s camera work, is a marriage between escaping India’s horrors and villains and simultaneously a relentless race towards their respective dreams.
Jamal’s future lies in the arms of his beloved Latika, who is repeatedly separated from him due to life’s unending cruelties. Whereas Salim inevitably transforms into a criminal henchman: the all too common reflection of the same harsh, dog-eat-dog environment that molded him. However, Boyle and company create nuanced characters through subtle touches, such as a simple scene showing a pious Salim praying, asking Allah to forgive him for his criminal misdeeds. His ultimate redemption comes through a selfless act, one that allows his younger brother Jamal to fulfill his destiny.
I must point out that Jamal, the protagonist, is a sweet hearted and resourceful Muslim Indian boy who never once commits terrorism or a religiously motivated act of violence. Hallelujah! Furthermore, a really good-looking girl, his beloved Latika, actually fancies him without duress or coercion – what a welcomed rarity!
Moreover, the filmmakers should be commended for letting India be India and allowing these characters and their South Asian culture freedom and space to live freely and authentically without whitewashing their existence. The paralyzing Orientalist narrative framing is far too common in Western media’s depiction of the East, and one that we, as an audience, are sadly accustomed to watching without afterthought. Boyle and company earn praise for celebrating the diversity of South Asian existence by savoring its piquant spices without diluting the mirch and masala.
So, here’s a cheer to Slumdog Millionaire, a movie that could make even the most curmudgeon of grinches amongst us – such as yours truly – applaud at the end. If you don’t feel even the slightest bit of elation at the end, then try pinching yourself to see if you’re still alive.
Associate editor Wajahat Ali is a Pakistani Muslim American who is neither a terrorist nor a saint. He is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and Attorney at Law, whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders” is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. His blog is at http://goatmilk.wordpress.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org