Wednesday, March 4, 2009


British director Danny Boyle, best known for “Trainspotting” and “The Beach,” has made the rags-to-riches feel-good film of the year with "Slumdog Millionaire." Mind you, Indian co-director Loveleen Tandan, who served as a second unit director on “Monsoon Wedding” (2001), helped Boyle out. Set in contemporary India, this winsome tale about three dirt-poor orphans who rise above abject squalor and poverty to attain their most outlandish dreams of romance and riches qualifies as modern day Charles Dickens morality play. Indeed, you could also compare "Slumdog Millionaire” (**** out of ****) to those vintage 1930s' Warner Brothers crime classics where one kid plunges down the wrong path while the other takes the right path. Ultimately, the brothers here find themselves at odds with each other on different sides of the law. The bad people are punished in "Slumdog," while the good people are rewarded. “Full Monty” scenarist Simon Beaufoy based his lively script on diplomat-turned-novelist Vikas Swarup’s first book, “Q & A,” about an Indian waiter who was arrested for cheating on a quiz show. Don't let the foreign oriented storyline discourage you from enjoying this inspirational yarn. Boyle provides interesting, off-beat looking subtitles for the Hindu dialogue, but the cast deliver most of the lines in English. If you’re looking for a change of pace, “Slumdog Millionaire” is just the ticket. As upbeat and optimistic as “Slumdog” is, prepare yourself for some scenes that may make you wince. “Slumdog” deserved its R-rating as much as it deserved his Best Picture Oscar. This movie is far more entertaining than the imaginative but long-winded Brad Pitt epic “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

Basically, “Slumdog Millionaire” concerns the coincidences that land a teenaged Muslim refugee from the Bombay slums, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), on the Indian equivalent of the ABC-TV show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” Since he is a product of the slums, our long-suffering hero is regarded with considerable suspicion. Jamal keeps surprising the slimy quiz show host Prem Kumar (veteran Bollywood actor Anil Kupoor) with one correct answer after another and the jealous Kumar turns him over to the authorities. Kumar is convinced that Jamal is a cheater. Kumar is far from saintly himself and doesn’t want Jamal to steal his glory. It seems Kumar’s meteoric rise in show business came about as a result of giving the right answers on a game show. At the outset, “Slumdog” creates suspense for audiences with the important question: “Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? A. He cheated. B. He’s lucky. C. He’s a genius. D. It is written.” Indeed, Jamal is poised to win more wealth that he can possibly imagine when the police subject him to a night of torture. They beat him up and finally attach jumper cables to his toes to make him confess. Our stubborn hero refuses to capitulate. The chief police investigator, Irfan Khan (Irrfan Khan), finds it difficult to believe that a kid from the slums could know so much.

Boyle’s strategy in "Slumdog" is to alternate each unusual question that our beleaguered hero answers with an episode from his traumatic life that relates to each question. The scene when Jamal plunges into an outdoors toilet, covering himself from head-to-toe in human feces, so he can obtain an autograph from his favorite movie superstar is hilarious. Actually, the fecal matter consisted of peanut butter and chocolate. (This scene is reminiscent of a similar episode from "Trainspotting" where an Edinburgh junkie dives into a toilet to retrieve a narcotic suppository.) During his youth, Jamal and his brother Salim (Madhur Mital) encounter some genuinely sleazy characters, especially one unsavory fellow who likes to 'rescue' orphans from the streets so that he can turn them into beggars. This part of “Slumdog” may remind you of Charles Dickens’s second novel “Oliver Twist.” Anyway, this scoundrel likes to blind small children and send them out to beg and sing for money. Jamal and Salim escape from this life, but in doing so, Jamal abandons--against his will--a girl named Latika (Frieda Pinto) for whom he has sworn his undying love. Of course, the evil child exploiter sells Latika to men who want to see her dance. Hmm, I wonder what the Indian Tourist Bureau thinks about this saga. Ten years ago, "Slumdog" would have taken place in Brazil. Suffice to say that the hero and heroine are separated with little chance of being reunited. Happily, however, "Slumdog" takes several astonishing twists and turns before fade-out that will surprise you, and ultimately make you feel good, perhaps even great, depending on how much you love fairy tales.

Although it runs two hours in length, “Slumdog Millionaire” never wastes a second. Boyle and Tandan turn this helter-skelter saga into a rollercoaster. As a glimpse of India, “Slumdog” is enlightening as well as horrifying. If nothing else, you’ll learn to never shed your shoes around the Taj Mahal. The casting of our heroes from adolescence to teenagers is nothing short of brilliant. This is no Hollywood hokum where the children look nothing like the adults. Jamal follows the straight and narrow after Salim and he indulge in juvenile delinquency that recalls the shenanigans of the Jewish kids in Sergio Leone’s gangster classic “Once Upon a Time in America.” You won’t forget “Slumdog Millionaire.” The irony of all this is “Slumdog,” which received 8 Oscars as well as two more Oscar nominations, almost wound up going straight to DVD because nobody believed it could recoup its $15 million budget. At this point, “Slumdog” has coined over $116 million dollars!

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