Monday, January 26, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Well I finally saw one of this year's Oscar contenders. I was one of the many people who flocked to the theater to see Slumdog Millionaire as it expanded its release this past weekend.

I can see why people love the movie so much. It is beautiful, funny, suspenseful, romantic, sad, touching, and has an endearing character that the audience can easily root for. Also, it is probably the only nominee this year that ends with a big dance number. And what leaves you feeling better than a joyous group dance number? I mean, even the little children dance! Too cute!

Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai who winds up one question away from winning the jackpot 20 million rupees on India's version of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Convinced that Jamal is cheating, an interrogator forces Jamal to explain how a "slumdog" could know each answer, and the movie cuts back and forth from the game show questions to the scenes from Jamal's past where he learned the answers. In these flashbacks, we see his tragic childhood, how he and his older brother Salim struggled to make it with no one to look after them, how he befriended fellow orphan Latika, and how every time he and Latika are torn apart, he devotes himself to finding her again.

No, the movie's not perfect. First I'd like to air this minor grievance of mine. The start of the movie poses a multiple choice question, where, as on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the four choices appear one by one. These were my thoughts as they appeared:

Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it?
A. He cheated
No way, I'm sure he didn't.
B. He's lucky
Probably, very.
C. He's a genius
D. It is written
Like, in a book or adapted screenplay? Of course. Way to break the fourth wall. Oh, you mean like destiny or something. Okay, that's probably it, then.

When it is said that something "is written", figuratively speaking it implies something like "it is written in the stars," which essentially means "it is fate." But you have to be careful using the phrase in something that is literally written. In the context of a movie or book, saying something "is written" just sounds obvious. Okay, sorry, just had to get that off my chest. Moving on...

The use of game show questions to prompt the flashback sequences that tell the story is a nice device, but it is not original. Similar premises have probably been used a number of times before, but I remember reading one particular book in middle school that used this sort of device, a Newbery Medal winner called The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg. It was about a team of friends competing in an academic bowl, and with each question they answered, it would cut to the point that they learned the answer. Now, like most books that I read more than half a lifetime ago, I hardly remember this book (though it may be interesting to note the few details I do remember: A weird boy on the school bus who wears shorts on the first day of school invites some friends to a tea party with references from Alice in Wonderland, and tip and posh are acronyms), but I do remember that general premise. Still Slumdog Millionaire makes good use of the device, and it is the poignant story told through the flashbacks that makes the movie great.

Some of the story was a little predictable, like what the last question would be, and the fact that Jamal would be phoning a friend and Latika would be the one answering the phone. But it is written, right? If fate is writing the story, it might as well work out just as it seems like it should. And there was much to the story that I did not find predictable or unoriginal. The children were adorable--I particularly enjoyed seeing the various ways that Jamal and his brother made a living growing up (remind me to bring an extra pair of shoes if I ever visit the Taj Mahal). And while it may seem like the same old rags to riches fantasy we've seen countless times before, it's not so simple. At the beginning of the movie, when Jamal looks totally dazed on the game show and doesn't seem happy whenever he gets an answer right, I was kind of mumbling to myself, "Just snap out of it, kid, and smile or something." I didn't understand why he didn't seem excited that he was winning. But eventually I realized that he didn't care about the money. I'm sure that the money he wins helps buy him a life that he never could have dreamed of (the movie naturally ends before we see how he spends all the money), but he wasn't on the show to get rich. It's a rags to riches story where the riches aren't the point.

There is considerable controversy surrounding the film. Some people think that it paints India in a bad light. Sure, it shows tough living conditions in Mumbai's slums, but it's a story about a kid from the slums. And every country has its poor parts; it is clear in the movie that the whole country is not like the slums where Jamal grew up. Another controversy is over the use of the word "slumdog" in the title of the movie. As one social activist protester reportedly put it, "Referring to people living in slums as dogs is a violation of human rights" (IMDb). Setting aside the fact that using a word is not a violation of human rights so much as preventing someone from using the word is (well, at least it's a violation of rights in some places), I think these protesters are missing the point. First of all, they may not realize how much we like dogs. Another compound word that uses "dog" is "underdog", which happens to describe Jamal as well. And, as it turns out, people like to root for the underdog. When the Giants face off against the Patriots and are called the underdogs*, they don't claim that their rights have been violated. They probably welcome the designation. Calling the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" is not calling people who live in slums animals. Besides, the whole movie is dedicated to making the audience feel for Jamal, to sympathize with him and root for him. Whatever the title, if anything the audience leaves with a higher opinion of people who live in slums than when they entered. So even if the word is perceived by some as derogatory, one could argue that the use of the word is ironic: here is a character that some people might look down on and call a slumdog, but he is a good, deserving person who wins big on a game show. Nowhere in there is Danny Boyle calling the real people who live in slums anything less than human. Stop burning him in effigy.

Well, I absolutely loved the movie. I didn't enjoy it as much as Dark Knight, but that's personal taste. And I sure didn't leave Dark Knight dancing. Hopefully I'll get to see other Oscar contenders before the big night, but if not, at least I've seen the front-runner underdog Slumdog Millionaire.

*I hope you appreciate the fact that coming up with a sports team reference is a frightening and torturous process for me.

1 comment:

Sebastian said...

I thought the great thing about this film is that it was actually produced by Celador -- the owners of the Millionaire franchise.

I know the film was based on a book though -- I wonder if some guy at Celadar changed it so that Millionaire was the gameshow involved, or if Celador demanded to be involved for copyright reasons...