I may be talking to myself in this review. Is there anyone who has not see Danny Boyle’s movie Slumdog Millionaire? Besides my wife and me, I mean. Okay, I am sure there are some of you out there but this was as hard a movie to miss. Like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it turned into a sleeper hit, but this movie was a foreign film to boot, an almost certain strike against it. It racked up eight Oscars in 2009 including the most coveted: Best Picture. It was nominated for two others. But somehow I had not gotten around to seeing it, in part because my wife thought a movie anchored in the slums of Mumbai was too depressing to watch. So I Netflixed it and watched it alone last weekend.
My wife was right: it is a very hard movie to watch unless you are somewhat inured to poverty. Most of us Americans blessedly have not beheld poverty on the scale of what exists in parts of India. Moreover, Danny Boyle does not try to hide any of its ugliness. If you have visited the Third World, it looks all too familiar, but married as it is in the metropolis of Mumbai the actual poverty seems much worse, because it is so pervasive, concentrated and because it happens in the shadows of skyscrapers. In them is a much more moneyed set of people who largely tune out the poverty around them.
As I understand it, that’s the way things have been in India forever, so if I lived there I might grow inured to it as well. The slums of Mumbai are much worse than we can imagine, because not only are you poor, but because you are preyed upon mercilessly. And then there are the race riots. So it goes for Jamal (Dev Patel, as an adult), Jamal’s elder brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and Latika (Freida Pinto), a girl from the slums. Jamal’s mother is killed in a race riot, leaving Jamal and Salim not just wretchedly poor, but orphaned and forced to fend for themselves. At least before their lives are blown apart they get some schooling, enough to read and write but once orphaned they are on their own. For a while they end up in what seems to be an orphanage, until, as they learn to their horror, their hosts simply want to use them as beggars. They manage to escape Mumbai by hitching a ride on the roof of a train, visit other places in India and get by for a while. And somehow as they move toward adulthood they escalate slowly up India’s economic ladder as well as lose touch with each other.
The story unfolds as a series of flashbacks while the adult Jamal plays as a contestant on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Jamal improbably gets on the show and even more improbably ends the show one question away from winning twenty million rupees. The telegenic show host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) is also part owner of the show, and is convinced Jamal is cheating. He has him roughed up in an effort to figure out how a poor Muslim from the Juhu slum can possibly know the answer to obscure questions like who was the third musketeer from The Three Musketeers. Like Sauron blind that his all-powerful ring was about to be destroyed right under his nose, Kumar cannot conceive that life circumstances serendipitously allowed Jamal to correctly answer all the questions.
The plot of Slumdog Millionaire is as old as the story of Cinderella, but like Cinderella the fable never loses its charm. What makes Slumdog Millionaire harder to endure is the retching poverty, misery, horror and despair that permeates the film. However, harsh circumstances like these can (but usually do not) make people amazingly resilient. Jamal in particular seems to be able to bounce back no matter how much crap life throws at him, or how much crap he literally covers himself in in order to get an autograph. He’s not happy about his circumstances but he deals with each obstacle with equanimity. What he wants more than anything else is to reconnect with his lost childhood sweetheart Latika, who has grown into a stunningly attractive woman. She plays something of a reluctant concubine to a local gangster.
Combine a Cinderella-like story with India’s appalling poverty, exceptionally good acting and directing and numerous doses of unexpected humanity and you end up with a surprise hit from India that wins Best Picture. As a bonus, you get terrific dancing on a train platform as the credits roll. I found the movie horrifying and endearing at the same time, and I suspect you will as well. It probably did deserve Best Picture, not because it was so incredibly exceptional, but because 2009 was a lean year for top-notch movies. The competition included Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon and The Reader.
Slumdog Millionaire is an excellent feel-good movie. You may find yourself crying in both joy and sorrow at the same time. 3.3 points on my four-point scale.