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Friday, January 30, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire reminds me of my sister Pearl. I’m sure by now you’ve heard of Slumdog Millionaire. You’d have to have been in a coma or living in a ghetto in Mumbai to have missed the word on this one. Er, wait, that last bit probably wouldn’t hold true in this case, but the coma part stands. Slumdog Millionaire is everywhere. It’s the little picture that could, and it’s swept awards show after awards show leading up to the big one coming soon enough (February 22nd), where it is nominated for ten Academy Awards. But that’s not why it reminds me of my sister Pearl. She’s never won anything except second place in an archery contest at Camp Uraphatmez, a summer retreat for “teens with weight issues” in the Poconos that our parents sent her to when she was thirteen.

Pearl was the kind of girl that everybody liked to talk to their friends and other relatives about in the hope they could encourage somebody to help find the girl a date. Pearl was, as they say, full of “personality” and “charm” and she was usually described as “smart” and “extremely entertaining.” In other words, she was called everything except what a guy was looking for in a date. Boys may be boys but they aren’t so dumb they don’t know ugly when they hear the buzz words that leave out good-looking or at least presentable in public. Teenage boys hear “smart” and that translates into “double-bagger.” I’m sorry, Pearl, but it’s true. My sister was homelier than a baboon’s butt when she was a teenager and no amount of Clearasil® could cover up that acne or make it go away. She never had a date for her prom; her hope chest is still hopelessly waiting and she’s now in her 50s, but that’s a whole other story. The point is that Pearl, like
Slumdog Millionaire, is not what we have come to expect.

Slumdog Millionaire is a surprise success in America, and it is easy to see why. It’s being talked about more than the neighborhood slut at a Baptist barbeque, and you can’t pick up a magazine or turn on a tv show without someone extolling it as the greatest thing since sliced bread. The truth is that Slumdog Millionaire is a good movie. I’m just not sure it’s that great of a movie. I suppose it might be a better movie than I’m feeling right now, but it’s been oversold by way too much press cramming it down our throats. In some ways I think Slumdog Millionaire has become the Sarah Palin of the American cinema. It may have its great points, but who can get past all the hype? If you ignore all that, and I’ll try, Slumdog Millionaire is basically a sweet enough love story, but it is told in the midst of a grim background of poverty, torture, indentured servitude, and betrayal… oh and the game show “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” of course.

The story begins as Jamal (Dev Patel; BBC tv’s “Skins”) is being interrogated by the police in
Mumbai, who have accused him of cheating on the Indian (dots not feathers) version of “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” None of the police or the show’s producer and host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor; Race) can believe for a second that a young man with no education can legitimately have made it as far as the final question in the game when professional men and women have never succeeded half as far. What they don’t understand is that by fate each of the questions asked has in some way been answered for him throughout the experiences of his life, which has been, and continues to be, a hard struggle up to this very moment.

Through flashbacks we see Jamal and his brother Salim’s boyhoods, following them as they learn to survive after their mother is slaughtered in an unrelentingly savage attack by Muslim men who raid the Hindu slums of Kolkata on the outskirts of Mumbai where the children live. After that, the boys (played by real-life kids from the ghetto, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as Jamal and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as Salim) join up with another orphan, a little girl named Latika (also debuting Rubiana Ali), to forage out a meager life for themselves living in a landfill until they are “saved” by a group of men from a supposed orphanage where the children routinely have their eyes burned out with hot spoons in order to make them more ‘effective’ as beggars on the street on behalf of the organization.

From here begins Jamal’s Dickensian saga that includes his eventual separation from Latika and his extremely troubling estrangement from Salim, who takes a much different path with his life than Jamal does with his own.

The fact that each of the questions on “Millionaire” coincides with an important memory in Jamal’s
life is obviously a fantasy straight out of Bollywood, but the enduring romance between star-crossed lovers Jamal and Latika is a Hollywood invention from the beginning of silent movies. Director Danny Boyle (Sunshine) has crafted a superbly told tale with a perfect balance of English and Hindi dialogue, enough of both so that the foreign film crowd will feel their highbrow sense of self-righteousness fulfilled at not being exposed to having their precious eyes exposed to some dreadful wide-release piece of crap like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, while the average movie-goer who would usually run from a film with subtitles won’t feel the need to turn tail on Slumdog Millionaire because they aren’t going to be too challenged by a lot of longwinded speeches. And besides, there’s always the promise of a much ballyhooed scene featuring a young Jamal jumping straight into an open cesspool of human excrement and coming out covered head-to-toe in poop just so he can escape being locked in an outhouse to get to his favorite movie star for an autograph. Now there’s something for even the crassest of audiences!

I’ll admit that I was a tad smitten with
Slumdog Millionaire, but I’m still not sure I’d put it on the list of the Best Movies of All Time (especially not if there’s any chance it might bump Xanadu off that same list), but I’d definitely have to say the end credit sequence of the movie is the best I’ve ever experienced. While most people bolt the second the movie wraps up, Slumdog Millionaire begins its most joyous moments as the credits roll. It is bound to put a smile on your face and a skip in your step, even if you’re at the movies by yourself, like my sister Pearl usually is. Sorry, Pearl.

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