Friday, February 06, 2009

'Millionaire' is anything but a 'dog'

“Slumdog Millionaire” is up for 10 Academy Awards and has already won a slew of high profile awards, including best movie of 2008 from the National Broad of Review and the Golden Globes.

Is the film worthy of all the accolades? It is hard to say, but if it isn’t the best film of the year, it is worthy of the attention simply because it will get people to see a very good film that they might not see otherwise.

The film tells the story of how a contestant was able to win India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Jamal (Dev Patel) is suspected of cheating because he grew up on streets of Mumbai and somehow managed to get further on the show than doctors and lawyers.

Jamal is interrogated in by Mumbai authorities, which gives the film its structure. As Jamal and the police inspector (Irrfan Khan) go through each question from the show, Jamal tells how he knew the answers through life experiences, which the audience is shown in flashbacks.

It is an interesting premise, and the rags-to-riches premise is universally appealing. There is also a love story. The real reason Jamal went on the show was to find Latika (Freida Pinto), a girl he has loved since childhood but who life keeps tearing away from him.

The film is directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later”) and written by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty,” "Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day”) from a novel by Vikas Swarup. Both the director and writer are English, but this is still very much an Indian production.

“Slumdog” doesn’t feel like foreigners coming in to tell a story about a country they don’t understand. Boyle was surrounded by a largely Indian crew and had an Indian co-director, Loveleen Tandan, who also helped with the script’s Hindi dialogue. This is crucial to the film’s feeling of authenticity.

Boyle is an extraordinary visual stylist who has always been able to find beauty in the mundane. There are shots that are brief, like a dog lying in the street during a chase through the slums of Mumbai, which add detail and richness to the film. Boyle is also a master of pacing and editing, and he keeps his film moving along like an action film yet keeps a focus on the humanity of his story.

The audience is told Jamal wins the game at the beginning of the film, but Boyle is such an assured filmmaker that the film’s final scenes of the show are still engrossing. The final question is absolutely perfect.

Visually and in tone, the film’s flashbacks recall the brilliant “City of God” that portrayed the escalating violence in a neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. This is a softer representation of that sort of life, although there are some scenes that are hard to watch. Jamal’s parentless childhood with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) includes being taken in by a Fagan-esque thug, run-ins with gangsters and scamming tourists at the Taj Mahal.

The film has a nice sense of humor about it. The lengths in which young Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) goes to get an autograph from his favorite actor will make you cringe and laugh at the same time. The story Jamal concocts about why the Taj Mahal was built is also quite amusing.

The acting in the film is excellent. Jamal, Salim and Latika are all portrayed by three different actors at different stages of their lives and everyone delivers solid work.

Patel as the adult Jamal is a dynamic, likable lead and it is easy to root for him. Hopefully this is the beginning of big career for him. Patel’s back-and-forth scenes with Khan’s inspector are particularly good. Khan slowly drops his guard when he gets pulled into Jamel’s story.

This is a genuinely uplifting, feel-good movie largely because it earns its happy ending. The film goes to dark places and its characters rise above it, and it is hard not to smile when Jamal and Latika finally get to be together.

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