Slumdog Millionaire

January 11, 2009 at 6:24 pm (Movies and TV)

The old man at the front of the house leaned in as he tore my ticket and whispered with a wink, “best movie in the house, sweetie.” Grandpa knows his stuff, because everything else I see this season will be trying to measure up to Slumdog Millionaire.

My initial reaction after this was to call my travel agent and cancel that dream vacation I’ve been planning to Mumbai.  This was an anti-commercial for American tourism there. My mother, however, who has been to India, says that the depiction is sadly accurate. I had never thought about, and was surprised by, the number of Indian-Americans living in our metro area (the theater was full of them) and had to wonder what their reaction to this was. When seeing a brutally honest characterization of Mumbai, one can’t help but instantly understand some of the problems that would have surely followed last year’s earthquake there. The churning nature of the place makes the city its own living, breathing character in the movie.

I read no reviews of this film prior to seeing it. I knew that it was a love story taking place in India, where a young man goes on a gameshow to try to catch a girl’s attention, and that class issues are central to the story. This is all true, however to say that this is all the movie is would be unfairly oversimplifying Slumdog Millionaire.

It took me overnight to begin writing this review simply to calm the whirling vortex of adjectives. Terrible, wonderful; terrifying, hopeful; beautiful, ugly; violent, gentle; simple, complicated; desperate, calm; truthful, deceptive; pre-destined, accidental; colorful, barren…I found myself in the ladies room before the next movie trying to collect myself because I was crying and wasn’t even sure why…was it because after everything that happened in this film (and there’s a lot), truth was all that remained? Or was it, pure and simply, emotional overload?

This film is disturbing and has much violence involving children.  You may ask why this is necessary. It is not merely necessary for plot explication, but it is a realistic depiction of what life is like for orphans living in the slums of Mumbai. As Americans this shocks us because this kind of life, to us, is incomprehensible; even the homeless here have better lives than what you’ll see. But as you’ll see, despite the moral corners these children must cut to stay alive, they have an admirable persistence (a formerly common virtue in our country which has all but disappeared). At one point a child crawls through the bottom of an outhouse, and out from under a heaping pile of human waste, in order to get a movie star’s autograph. It is far from secret how passionately I love Johnny Depp, but there are some things not even I would do to get his autograph.

What a gifted director Danny Boyle is, to draw such effective performances out of little children. How adept he is, to be able to capture the color, the chaos, the opulence juxtaposed directly with the appalling poverty of Mumbai in such an absolutely haunting way.  What a humane performance by Irrfan Khan, how perfect Anil Kapoor’s gameshow host, and how amazingly well the two young actors Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto demonstrate simultaneous innocence and world-weariness. This is, quite simply, a masterpiece. Once this movie had finished, not a soul moved to leave the theater until the credits had finished. I’ve never seen that happen before.

I predict Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score, Best Cinematography, Best Screenplay, and while I have more movies to see, have the preliminary belief that Slumdog Millionaire could and arguably should win in several of these categories. It’s a long shot for a Best Costumes nomination in a year that also contains The Duchess, but that wouldn’t surprise me, either. If Slumdog Millionaire leaves you with any one realization, it’s that anything could happen…but then…perhaps it is written.


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