If you only see one movie this holiday season, go see “Slumdog Millionaire”. This is one for the ages, a film that on the one hand taps into deeply familiar, satisfying story patterns (a humble man’s relentless quest for his lost love; a Dickensian commentary on social mobility, or lack thereof; even a “will she get away” suspense story), but on the other hand treats them with freshness, dressing it all up in a colorful, multi-layered, incredibly textured virtuouso example of cinematic razzle dazzle — none of it gratuitous, all in the service of a great story with fascinating multi-layered characters. If it sounds like I’m in love with this film — I am. It’s the first film I’ve seen in many years that made me want to go out and buy another ticket and watch it a second time immediately. Director Danny Boyle (Transpotting, 28 Days Later) has created something that special. It’s already started raking in awards — is nominated for 5 Golden Globes and won “Best Picture” from the National Board of Review. Watch for it to be an Oscar Best Picture dark horse pic, with Danny Boyle a lock for a Best Director nomination.
The story opens with 19 year old Jamal Malik (an excellent Dev Patel in a debut roll) being tortured by Indian police officials who believe that this quiet young boy fromt he slums (the “Slumdog” of the title) must have cheated to have advanced all the way to the final question of the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. The police can’t believe that Jamal could possibly have answered all the questions without cheating, and they are determined to use the overnight break prior to the show resuming for the final question to wring a confession out of him. But instead of confessing, Jamal steadfastly claims his innocence and for each question, has an explanation drawn from an extraordinary life journey that, we learn, began when his mother was killed before his eyes by an anti-Muslim mob that attacked Jamal’s Bombay shanty slum, leaving Jamal and his brother to fend for themselves.
We come to learn that Jamal — who is now working as a “chai wallah” serving tea to the workers in a massive call center — has become a contestant on “Millionaire” because the love of his life — Latika, played by the extraordinary newcomer Freida Pinto — loves the show and might see it. We learn that Latika is Jamal’s childhood sweetheart, herself an orphan from the slums, who is separated from Jamal by fate and social stratification — and in true (but fresh and unique) fairy tale fashion, Jamal’s final question appearance on Millionare will bring about a final resolution of his quest.
As a production endeavor, Slumdog is epic and intimate all at once. Danny Boyle has bravely gone into the deepest slums of Mumbai armed with tiny digital cameras whose footage cuts seamlessly with the 35mm film cameras used for the more controlled scenes. As viewers we are gripped by Jamal’s tale from the first moments of the film, and are not released from it until the end credits begin to roll and even then we’re captivated by an unexpected, yet totally exhilirating Bollywood style musical number that gives new meaning to the old axe that the ending should be “inevitable but unexpected”.
Most importantly — this being the season when we want to believe we are connected to one another, and want to feel affirmation of that whether it’s in gatherings with friends or encountering carolers on the street (and I encountered some just after coming out of the movie…couldn’t help but feel it was connected in some way) … this is a movie that provides the kind of uplift and connectivity that we all want and need — perhaps moreso this year than others. A word of warning before you take the kids: It’s a film that’s largely about children, but it’s rated R (I think PG 13 would have been sufficient) and includes some tough scenes, including the torture of Jamal by the Indian police, and the murder of a character by a gun-wielding 14 year old, Jamal’s brother. But do go see it. You won’t regret it.