Review: Slumdog Millionaire (MA)

07 Jan 2009

By The Record

Life on the streets redeemed by love. Danny Boyle’s latest reviewed by Anthony Barich.


Slumdog Millionaire (MA)
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal
At Luna Cinemas

Reviewed by Anthony Barich
With India making headlines for all the wrong reasons of late, Slumdog Millionaire makes no attempt to explain the deep-seated tensions that make the subcontinent of over 1.1 billion a simmering powder-keg. It is, however, an all-at-once vibrant, dazzling, humbling, sorrowful and hopeful tale of how difficult life can be living in such a country which is, despite its rampant poverty and religious tensions, a place full of love, life and hope.
But don’t look to director Danny Boyle’s previous outings, like the iconic drug-addled Trainspotting or horror flick 28 Days Later to prefigure how he will tackle this Indian saga.
Never-the-less, Slumdog Millionaire – set and shot in India and based on the book Q and A by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup – has Oscar written all over it.
Realistic without bludgeoning, heartbreaking while hopeful, Slumdog Millionaire traces the life of 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), including incidents which give him all the answers to be on the cusp of winning 20 million Rupees (AUS$626,000) on Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
The movie opens with Jamal being brutally interrogated by police who can’t believe that a penniless orphan who literally grew up on the streets of Mumbai and who doesn’t seem to care that much about money could possibly answer all the show’s questions correctly.
Slumdog then progresses as Jamal tells a jaded police inspector (Irrfan Khan) a riveting but harrowing tale of his life in the slums with his older, protective brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and their mother, who is killed in a Hindu anti-Muslim riot that happens all too often on the subcontinent.
This murder, which – like every part of Jamal’s story – has the answer to one of the gameshow questions, turns him and his brother into streetkids, vulnerable to any influence.
Desperate to survive, their evolution as individuals in a brutal existence what lifts this story above the average underdog-wins-the-day story: while both do what’s necessary to survive, Jamal holds onto his soul despite all the hits he takes, while Salim willingly sells his soul to get out of trouble then wallows in the pleasures it brings.
This attitude of Jamal’s does not merit him a necessarily better life. In fact, Salim enjoys the pleasures of working for a gangster while Jamal struggles on selling chai lattes. Yet while Jamal continues to work hard to raise his lot in life the respectable way, Salim prays every night to God – they’re Muslim – begging for forgiveness.
Yet Salim’s choices are not entirely wrought of succumbing to easy pleasures. Being the older brother who saves his younger sibling time and again has left him a tortured soul, easily corrupted by anything that will fill the hole that was first torn open by witnessing their mother’s murder.
There is a deep sense of spirituality and humanity that underpins the narrative and its characters, and it is not until the very end that Salim is redeemed – an ending which won’t be revealed here, but it says something about the love that wells in each of us, despite what we’ve done.
It is primarily love that drives Jamal. Not lust. Not teen angst. Throughout the back-story that he recites to the police inspector and in the “present” as he comes to the final 20 million-Rupee question and beyond, his life revolves around searching for the beautiful but vulnerable Latika (Indian model/actress Freida Pinto), who he is smitten with since he first lays eyes on her as a boy. In a country with a Hindu culture where women are sub-human, Latika, homeless like the two brothers, is susceptible to what such kids are exposed to in India – prostitution.
The three are separated when they escape from Maman, a gangster who runs an orphanage as a front for a child-begging ring. The relationship between Maman and the children he takes in under the guise of charity evokes Dickensian memories of Oliver Twist.  From the moment Jamal loses her while escaping Maman, we fear for Latika’s life and in what state Jamal will find her; yet we know that whatever situation she has been forced into, Jamal will love her unconditionally.
While bursting with dazzling colour and pulsating with the soundtrack of Indian musician and film composer AR Rahman that modernises familiar traditional Indian Bollywood with electric sounds, Slumdog does not hide India’s heartbreaking squalor, nor over-dramatise the plight of the country’s most vulnerable.
Its depiction of life on the streets, filmed as with the edginess of a street-kid’s boundless energy, is chillingly accurate. Homeless children who invariably work for a “benefactor” are cruelly blinded to get more money from sympathetic passers-by – which happens all too often in India. The children themselves are displayed with reverence that reveals their humanity.
Yet throughout the film is an undercurrent of hope, because we know that he somehow gets through all this to be sitting in the television studio answering these questions. But is he still safe? Why did he enter himself on the gameshow in the first place? All will be revealed.  But don’t expect to just sit there and chew your popcorn. This film will illuminate and force you to think, without baiting your affections with guilt.