Monday, January 5, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

In Lawrence of Arabia screenwriter David Bolt neatly expressed a clash of worldviews beween Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) and Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif). You may recall that Lawrence manages to convince the reluctant Ali and a small band of Arabs to join him in an attempt to do the impossible, cross the Nefud Desert and attack Aqaba from the landward side. As they reach the halfway point Lawrence notices that his servant, Gasim, is missing and wants to turn around to search for him. This seems like a sure death sentence since the water is almost gone, and to Ali and the Arabs it's madness and blasphemy. They plead with Lawrence not to turn back -- "Gasim's time has come. It is written!" But Lawrence disagrees with their version of destiny with the famous line, "Nothing is written!" Later, after Gasim has been rescued and Aqaba taken, Ali admits that "for some men nothing is written unless they write it."

In Danny Boyle's new film Slumdog Millionaire, in fact, it is written. It is written that Jamal Malik, member of a despised caste, a Mumbai slumdog, will be one question away from winning undreamt of riches on India's version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Jamal has none of the will-to-power and bravado of T.E. Lawrence, no captain of his destiny he. Most of the time contestant Jamal (Dev Patel) has a bemused "I can't believe this is happening to me" expression. Jamal is driven though. He's driven by a quest to find the girl he fell in love with in childhood. Will Jamal get the girl? Will he win the twenty million rupees? That's as much as I'll say about the plot of this remarkable film, one that's on just about everybody's ten best list, and may well walk away with Best Picture for 2008.

There's a lot to like about this Slumdog. Not least the way it melds Western cinematic sensibilities with the energy and color of Bollywood. Scanning the cast and credit list confirms that this was an international affair. I feel like I've been to Mumbai after following Boyle's hyper-active camera through the densely packed streets and alleyways accompanied by the kinetic score from A.R. Rahman (I will be purchasing this soundtrack). There are images I won't soon forget, many of them from the early reels as we follow Jamal, his brother Salim and orphaned Latika through the slums of (then) Bombay as they live the life of street children. Boyle has shown a knack for directing kids (e.g., Millions), and here depicts the indominability of youth better than any film I can recall. The game show sequences are spot-on, and feature a standout performance by veteran Indian actor Anil Kapoor as the slippery host.

Culture, religion and demographics have contributed to create some of the most horrific living conditions in the world for millions in India. Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy give us glimpses into the poverty and sickening exploitation of entire classes of human beings. Later, we see the slums of Bombay giving way to the gleaming skyscrapers of Mumbai. This opens up new opportunities, both legit and otherwise. Is the poverty and exploitation less now, or just not as visible? Slumdog Millionaire is calculated to send moviegoers heading toward the exits feeling good. The audience I saw it with applauded loudly at the end. I can see why. It's an exhilarating ride with a big payoff, albeit one I can't fully embrace when viewed against the tragic backdrop. That sound you hear is of one hand clapping.

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