Friday, January 2, 2015

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Director: Danny Boyle                                       Writer: Simon Beaufoy
Film Score: A.R. Rahman                                 Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal and Anil Kapoor

The U.S. version of the popular British game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, was a huge hit on television when it premiered in 1999, and by the following year was being produced all over the British Commonwealth, including India. The idea for the film Slumdog Millionaire is a simple but ingenious one. What if a young man, just through the sheer act of being alive for eighteen years, happened to be exposed to a random set of information that formed the basis for the questions on one particular episode of the game show? If that was all there was to the film, however, it certainly wouldn’t have become the sensation it did, not only an unexpected hit in the United States and the rest of the world, but winning the Academy Award for best picture over its domestic competition, and winning eight Oscars overall. Technically the film is a British production and not from Bollywood. Director Danny Boyle turned it down at first, but when he found out Simon Beaufoy--who had penned The Full Monty--was the screenwriter, he signed on with Loveleen Tandan as co-director in India.

The film begins with text saying that Dev Patel is one question away from winning the twenty million grand prize. Then he is shown on the game show but juxtaposed with him being interrogated and tortured and remembering Freida Pinto. Irrfan Kahn wants to know how he did it. What he tells them is that he actually knew the answers, and in flashback from when he was a boy he tells the story of how he came to know those exact answers. The first is about the star of a 1973 Indian film. But it turns out the star came to Patel’s village when he was a young boy, so he knew him well. Next is the phrase on the Indian flag, and yet he didn’t know that one and had to ask the audience. From there it is depictions of the god Rama and seeing an image of the god when his mother was killed. The next question is about a song written by an Indian poet. But when he was a child and kidnapped to work as a beggar he was forced to sing the song. After he and his brother escape, they ride the trains until they are thrown off in front of the Taj Mahal. There they stole a lot of money from Americans, including hundred dollar bills, the subject of the next question. The reason he goes on the game show is because he wants to find his long lost love, Pinto, and believes she’ll be watching the show.

The real appeal of the film is actually not about the game show at all, but the way in which the seemingly random chance in his life that led him to know the answers is paralleled by the random chance that actually kept him alive. That part of the story is almost more remarkable, and far more suspenseful. As he tells the story, Patel begins as a young boy and gradually grows up on his journey as homeless orphan in India. He and his brother at first traveled with a girl who wasn’t able to escape with them, but later they find her in the red light district where the leader of the beggar children, Mahesh Manjrekar, planned on selling her as a virgin. They escape with her only to be separated from Patel’s character, who doesn’t find his brother until much later when he begins working for a call center. After the host of the show, Anil Kapoor, turns Patel in to the police for cheating, that’s when he’s interrogated but simply tells the truth and Irrfan Kahn believes him. It’s a good film, but should it have won the Oscar for best picture? Not that year, especially with Benjamin Button--which earned the most nominations that year--and The Reader in the running. Still, Slumdog Millionaire is definitely entertaining, and a real surprise for Westerners who don’t know what life is like in much of India.

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