Status: In limited release (opened 11/12/08)
Directed By: Danny Boyle with Loveleen Tandan
Written By: Simon Beaufoy
Cinematographer: Anthony Dod Mantle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor
Rare is the director who becomes known not for a single achievement or one particular genre that he or she helped define or a unique technique of some sort, but rather for the way his career spans multiple genres, multiple techniques, and realizes many significant accomplishments. The great Sidney Lumet certainly comes to mind as an example of the latter, as does Ang Lee; they are men whose careers are defined by their undefinability, their willingness to take chances and try something new and never allow themselves to become pigeon-holed. I think we are now compelled to add Danny Boyle to this class of director (if we weren’t already), as Slumdog Millionaire is one of the freshest, most unforeseen, and boldest films to come out in a long time. It’s not just a fresh twist on a timeless type of story, it’s also an epitomizing example of a director at the top of his form, the master of every minute detail of his production, taking a daring risk by venturing into some new territory and making his movie all the better for it.
This is a British filmmaker and British screenwriter telling the story of a homeless boy from the slums of Mumbai named Jamal, using an adaptation of an American gameshow as its central plot device, loosely based on an Indian novel called Q&A. It’s not exactly Quantum of Solace with its globe-hopping style, but it does have a certain worldly sensibility to it, particularly to a Western audience. Jamal has gone on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in order to attract the attention of his lifelong love, a fellow “slumdog” from the streets named Latika. Somehow he’s found himself at the final question, on the verge of winning 20,000,000 rupees, and being accused of cheating in order to get there.
The story is told in the style of The Usual Suspects, with the police interrogating Jamal as he explains to them the manner in which each of the questions he’s been asked on the show thus far relates to a defining moment in his life, in order to explain how he knew the answers. We see these moments played out as he recounts them, chronicling the lives of Jamal, his older brother Salim, and the girl Latika. These three characters are shown at three defining stags of their lives: as children, as early teens, and as present-day twenty-somethings, and each is portrayed by three different actors. Their paths diverge and intersect in fascinating ways, showing the hardships faced by the most populous country’s poor as they struggle to survive.
Boyle lovingly portrays the lower-class culture of India as playful and quick-witted and charming, and it is easy for an audience—even one that cannot relate on almost any level to the logistical aspects of their lives—to find itself caring for these characters, particularly Jamal, who has let his love for Latika guide his every move even into adulthood, when his childish puppy love turns into grown-up naivete. The real joy of watching this story unfold is in the way it’s told, not just because it jumps around in time and is constantly setting up and then revealing the secrets of many mysteries along the way, but also because every jump feels natural, every transition unforced, every life moment’s relation to a Millionaire question believable. Boyle, along with editor Chris Dickens, visually foreshadows several key moments throughout the film, and where other directors might try this and have it result in a jumbled mess, here it serves as a masterful means of keeping the audience’s mind on the main thrust of the story—Jamal’s quest for Latika’s affection—while allowing each of the smaller stories to be fleshed out in a way that paints a complete picture, giving us the feeling that we really know these characters, which of course makes us feel more invested in the situations they find themselves involved in.
The whole production is very polished, with several aspects of the film reveling in the cultural cross-contamination that is both on display—the characters seem to speak at about a 60/40 split of English and Hindi, for instance—and that the film itself exists as an example of. Bringing a story of Indian children to Western audiences in a relatable way is bold enough; doing so with the proper sensibilities is even more impressive, and Boyle pulls this off as flawlessly as every other element of this film. He has just the right amount of Bollywood charisma thrown in, too, most notably in the veteran Indian actor (Anil Kapoor) who plays the sleezeball gameshow host. And then there’s the music, again a mix of Indian and English pop songs used along with the film’s score, bringing another side of the culture we’re witnessing to the forefront in an accessible way.
Most of all, this is a feel-good story with several unique twists that set it apart: the uncommon setting and culture on display, the effective storytelling style that tells us everything we need to know about the life of its main character while relating it all to his present dilemma, and the stylish and polished production. It’s a unique choice from a unique creative visionary, uniquely executed almost to perfection. Definitely one of the most purely enjoyable movies I’ve seen in several years, it will certainly be in the running for a lot of best picture of the year short lists (including, of course, my own).