It is always difficult for the average moviegoer to keep things straight during Oscar season. There are movies all around being advertised as “Best of the Year,” throwing marketing materials in your face with a laundry list of quotes from critics. It can become a hyperbolic nightmare in an instant, sending Joe the movielover off to see the latest Keanu movie instead of taking a chance on a great piece of art. The season also gets people talking about movies that would normally be way off their radar. This year, all of the buzz seems to be going in the director of “that Indian movie” that isn’t quite so Indian, yet isn’t too far off either. Directed by a Brit (Danny Boyle), based on a book by a former Indian diplomat and delivered with generous helpings of Bollywood flash and old-fashioned Hollywood-style romantic melodrama, Slumdog Millionaire is one of this year’s movies that will make you believe in the hype, among other things.
One thing I’ve always believed in is that in order for a film to truly be great, it has to lock down three core elements: writing, directing and acting. Elementary in thought, I know, but if you take every film and analyze it with these three elements front of mind, you’ll be taking first steps toward being able to think about them critically. The story of Slumdog Millionaire is a simple one — Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is on the verge of winning 20 million rupees on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” but he’s been arrested on suspicion of cheating. In his attempt to explain how he knew all of the answers, Jamal is forced to recall the sometimes painful memories from his childhood that led him to know them all. And through a series of flashbacks we watch Jamal’s life unfold, filled with hardships, a tough relationship with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and his unwavering love for his childhood friend Latika (Freida Pinto).
The film is told through a series of flashbacks linking the jailed Jamal in the present with the hardships of his past. While Jamal’s love for Latika remains the center of the story throughout, the film never strays away from giving us big helpings of reality and gut-wrentching drama. It is fluffy, somewhat implausible love story in one moment and real world tragedy in the next, keeping its audience engaged at every turn. As well, the performances from all three actors that portray Jamal through the stages of his life sell him as our slum-born hero. He’s a character so likable that it really isn’t fair. All we are left to do is pull for him.
As important as it is to start with a great story, which in this case comes in the form of a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy adapted from the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup, it is just as important to have a director who can bring a unique vision to the material. And for Slumdog, Danny Boyle had the perfect vision for how to deliver this story unto the screen. He displays an amazing feel for environment as character, Boyle delivers what his fans have come to expect — throbbing music, jaunty editing, showy cinematography — and when necessary, a delicate touch for the intimate moments. It all fuses perfectly to create the film’s infectious energy — an energy that never lets up, through the tragedy and the triumph — all the way up to the rousingly silly Bollywood-style dance number during the closing credits. For anyone paying attention it is very difficult not to become emotionally invested in this film’s characters and get caught up in the rush of adrenaline that it sometimes delivers.
In the end it all comes down to belief — belief in the fact that if you take a chance on Slumdog Millionaire that you are going to see one of the best movies of the year. You can believe that you will get more than just a love story, but a film that speaks volumes about real world problems such as globalization, overpopulation and poverty without being preachy in any way. You can believe that you are going to get a film that will take you on an emotional journey with characters who are very real and endearing, despite the sometimes whimsical nature of its plot. You can believe that Dev Patel is the real deal, delivering one of the year’s more memorable performances. You can believe that when you leave the theater you will feel the effect of 2008’s most uplifting film — you’ll also be humming “Jai Ho,” the tune from the closing credits. And you can believe that if this deliriously entertaining, unforgettable film were to walk away with the big award at the end of the big night, this would be one reviewer who wouldn’t be surprised at all.