Film: Slumdog Millionaire
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.
For a short couple of years, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was the hottest damn thing on television. I have no idea if it’s still on. First of all, I never watched it, and second, the only way we have television in Case de Honeywell is online or the Roku. Evidently it’s still on, at least according to my Google-fu. Slumdog Millionaire centers on this television show and one particular contestant playing the Indian version for 20 million rupees.
The player is Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, and Tanay Chheda as an adolescent, and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar as a child), a tea boy and former slum dweller and criminal. But we don’t start in the studio. Instead, we start in a police station where Jamal is being beaten and electrocuted to get him to confess. It seems that at the end of his first day run, he’s managed to get to 10 million rupees, one question away from the jackpot, and everyone connected with the show is convinced that he must have cheated some way.
The bulk of the film is told in flashback, with Jamal going through his life to explain how he knew the answers to the various questions. As we progress, it becomes more and more obvious to us that he did really know most of his answers (if not quite all), but many of these answers are equally suspicious. I’m not justifying the torture, mind you; I’m just saying that I understand where the host of the show (Anil Kapoor) was coming from.
What we learn, for instance, is that he doesn’t know the motto of India—an early question—and needs to use one of his lifelines for it. We learn that he knows about the Hindu god Rama because his mother was killed by Hindus on in an anti-Muslim riot. Slowly, his story comes out, and each point in the story explains one part of his life growing up in the slums, following his older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammad Ismail as a child, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala as an adolescent and Madhur Mittal as an adult) around India, and surviving.
It’s impossible to tell this story without including Latika (Rubina Ali/Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar/Freida Pinto as child/adolescent/adult). A slum girl, Jamal takes her in when they are children, and she becomes part of their family, a third Musketeer in a real sense, since this is a book the boys had been reading at school before their mother died. Salim is dead set against Latika, but accepts her, and so begins Jamal’s infatuation for the girl, and to some extent, hers for him. Much of the rest of the film centers around Jamal and Latika being separated, finding each other, and being forced apart.
More than anything, it is the squalor that astounds. The Indian footage was filmed by Loveleen Tandan, and it looks like she might have enough to make a documentary at some point. The poverty is incredible, as is the aforementioned squalor. These kids live on trash heaps, and in fact the child actors came from the trash heaps, and there are some reports that suggest that some of them are still living there. These are slums like the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground.
I don’t really know about that, so let’s stick to the film. The relationship between Jamal and Latika is an interesting one. I bought it for the length of the film, but now I’m having some second thoughts about it. Does it work? It sort of does. There’s a sense that Jamal wants to protect Latika from everything, but is unable to do so—in fact, he says that he went on the show specifically because he knew that she’d be watching. It comes across more as obsession than love, at least in terms of Jamal. I think that’s okay. It works for the characters. Jamal’s relationship with his brother is far less complicated in that respect. Jamal lives under Salim’s thumb until he finally breaks with him, over Latika, naturally. That relationship I buy without question.
Slumdog Millionaire won a shit-ton of Oscars, and it certainly deserved some of them. I’ve been told by several people that the film takes real liberties with the book, and not all of them in a positive way, but I can’t speak to that on personal experience. I can say that the film is visually fantastic; it’s a textbook on cinematography.
The ending, though. Eventually, after Jamal has pled his case with the police, they let him back on the show for the final question. And as with the previous questions he has gotten, it is one that has a connection with his life. He’s told that in the book The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (it’s spelled wrong in the film, incidentally), two of the Musketeers are Athos and Porthos. His question is to name the third. If you are familiar with the book or one of the multiple adaptations, you know whether or not he is right the moment he gives his answer. (Here’s a hint for you: it’s not D’Artagnan.)
Why to watch Slumdog Millionaire: Because Horatio Alger ain’t dead in spirit.
Why not to watch: If you know your literature, you know the end before it happens.