I tried this with my review for RocknRolla so let’s give it another shot here. How this works is I break a review up into 4 different categories and you judge it based on how you rate each particular area in importance.
Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is a boy from the streets who gets the chance of a lifetime to be on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? But, because he’s a “slumdog” with no formal education, he is interrogated by a police instructor (Irfan Khan) who believes he cheated. Re-telling the story of his life, Jamal has to explain how he knew the answer to each question on the show. As Jamal’s story unfolds, we see the tale of an orphaned boy and his brother Salim and the lost-love of his life Latika.
What’s unusual about the plot is that it’s not just a tale of an underestimated kid getting a chance of a lifetime. Jamal is not particularly smart, he’s not Will Hunting or the other underestimated Jamal (from Finding Forrester), he’s just a regular kid who’s seen a lot on the streets. It’s mainly a story about the up-and-down, Cain and Able-like relationship between Jamal and Salim, and the many times Latika has been ripped from his life. Mix that with parts of a film about family dynamic, being on-the-road, gangster movie, shocking violence, and underdog tale (the ending kinda feels like a sports movie) and you get a very eclectic story. What helps keep it all together is the sensational direction of Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later). He’s a good story-teller, and through his simple direction we see the plot unfold easily, even though there are so many layers.
I will say that it’s not all perfect. There’s a fair amount of cliche in the story, like how Latika at one point becomes the crime-lord’s woman and the reactions given by the characters at various times are less than realistic. Someone sits in a pile of money during a gun-fight; a character runs through a crowd at a train station. It’s nothing too big, but sometimes these over-dramatized reactions hamper the story.
Some of the acting here is top-notch. Dev Patel as Jamal Malik is the kind of kid you want to hug. From the very first moment we see him, he looks like a young man in way over his head, and by the time the movie ends he becomes a hero to many. The transition works and it’s because of Patel’s youthful-innocence-stripped eyes and charismatic smile. Irfan Khan is fantastic as the unnamed police inspector. Khan should’ve been nominated for roles in last year’s The Namesake and A Mighty Heart and he’s equally fantastic here. His ratio of intimidation : actually trying to intimidating is 4:1, the man can pull it off without a hitch.
The children actors in Slumdog Millionaire are all suitable. We see Jamal, Salim, and Latika through three stages: early childhood, early teens, and young adult. The nine actors playing the three roles are good, but Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (youngest Salim) and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar (youngest Jamal) are the above and beyond the best. The two are cute as buttons but each does a great job of showing how their collective experiences will lead them to be the people they grow up to be. Young Salim has a fierce scowl and natural inclination towards aggression, while young Jamal has a smartass grin that endears him to others.
The actress that plays the modern day Latika is the only dry spot in the ensemble. She really doesn’t get much to do as she’s relegated to plain love interest. We don’t get to see her deal with her struggles and we don’t even get a real feeling for why she would love Jamal, other than the fact that they grew up together. She’s utterly beautiful, yet her beauty is almost all in her looks, there doesn’t seem to be any sadness or turmoil behind the eyes that add to the story.
Writer Simon Beaufoy adapted this from the novel Q & A by Vikus Swarup. The screenplay is great. Even though there’s a religious overtone to the story, the story never delves into any diatribes about ritual or prayer. Although these kids are orphans and homeless, we’re never meant to see them as charity. Again, there are some hiccups with the script, mainly due to cheesy dialogue given to “bad” guys who aren’t fully developed. One character that is an enigma is Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) the host of Millionaire. We go back and forth as to whether or not he’s rooting for or against Jamal, and the vagueness makes the character much more fun to watch.
This is simply one of the most beautiful films of the year. The locations are wonderful whether they are the backroads of a small, dank Indian town or the front steps of the Taj Mahal. However, there are two categories where Slumdog Millionaire is sure to warrant an Oscar nomination. One is the cinematography. Anthony Dod Mantle does a nice job of telling the story through gels and the lighting of imagery. We can tell where the event falls in Jamal’s life based on just the content of each shot, even if they’re not in chronological order. He also does a nice job of framing aging characters similarly throughout the timeline.
The other category is editing. Jamel tells the story of his life linearly but Boyle and Chris Dickens do a fantastic job of splicing back and forth. They create a great deal of tension just with the editing especially when it overlaps with Jamal sitting in the Millionaire contestant seat.
The music is a nice touch. In scenes on the Millionaire set they just use the actual music from the show, nothing more needs to be added. That music has always made me sweat with the way it uses repetitive high tones. Boyle likes to add a little techno to his films and here there are some nice electronic melodies that fit. The Latika-Jamal motif is breathtaking. Adding “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. (the Clash “Straight to Hell” cover that you’ll recognize from the Pineapple Express trailer) is a strange touch and looks just awkward in the film. But anytime you have a scene involving kids selling balloons on a train and the soundtrack features bullet shots and cash registers, something is amiss. There’s also a dance sequence at the end of the film, traditionally a standard of many Bollywood movies. This sequence doesn’t really take away from the narrative, but it also comes across a bit awkwardly.
I give credit to Boyle (and co-director Loveleen Tandan) for trying to bring that Bollywood flavor to the rest of the world. Essentially what they’ve made is a gritty rags-to-riches story, the type of film that flourishes in Bollywood, except without all the pizzazz and glitz. It’s smart that they made it hunkered down in a reality that millions of Indian children live everyday. It reminds us that sometimes life is harsh, but a happy ending may still call for a choreographed dance number.
So as much as this isn’t nearly as diverse a range as my RocknRolla review, it’s still worth noting that some elements of the film work more/less than others. I recommend this film highly to all filmgoers as it’s more than just another charming indie flick. In fact, it’s got more depth and humanity than anything else released this year.