I rarely venture into movie theaters any more, being antisocial and all. Danny Boyle’s never been a favorite either: as most of you know, I like happy! not his brand of in-your-face hellishness! But when a friend offered a ticket for this one, I couldn’t resist.
It’s been winning awards at film festivals for several months now, but that’s not what drew me. I just couldn’t wait to see Anil Kapoor in a “Hollywood” movie. Of all the actors in Hindi cinema these days, he’d be one of the last I would expect to see cast in one. For one thing, he doesn’t seem interested in an international career—his son had to explain who Danny Boyle was when he was offered the film; and for another, he has not been making a lot of movies for some time now.
So did he deliver?
Well, first a quick synopsis. A young man named Jamal (Dev Patel) is being interrogated in a police lock-up. The question the police want answered: how did an uneducated boy from the slums get to the Rs. 10,000,000 prize mark on the Indian version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” (I kind of wish they’d called it “Kaun Banega Crorepati” but the film was made in English—most of the slum children speak English too).
The show’s arrogant host Prem (Anil Kapoor) and the Police Inspector (Irfan Khan) are convinced that Jamal has cheated, and they want to know how.
The film cuts between Jamal’s performance on the show, and flashbacks from his life in the sprawling Dharavi slums. Beginning with his childhood, he attempts to explain to the inspector how events and hardships in his life have taught him the answers that he’s given on the show.
It’s difficult to watch a good deal of the time. The evils that befall children who are alone in the world are depicted with stark reality (for instance, a child being deliberately blinded so that he will earn more for his masters begging). There are some lighter moments too, but they aren’t necessarily easier to watch! My favorite is when little Jamal, determined to get a look at his favorite actor Amitabh Bachchan, immerses himself in raw sewage to get to him.
When their Muslim mother is killed during sectarian riots, Jamal and his older brother Salim are left homeless and alone to fend for themselves. The two boys are a study in contrasts: Salim is hard-headed and practical, while Jamal is a romantic dreamer. Against Salim’s wishes, Jamal insists that they include an orphaned girl named Latika in their little family.
As they grow up (all three are portrayed at various stages of childhood by three different actors for each of them), Latika is separated from them first.
After Jamal succeeds in finding her several years later, circumstances separate him this time from both Salim and Latika. Salim (Madhur Mittal) takes a grim path working for Javed Bhai (Mahesh Manjrekar in a chilling portrayal), the don who lords it over the slums. Jamal works at various odd jobs and never stops looking for his beloved Latika (Freida Pinto), who has also become hopelessly entangled in Javed’s snare.
The events from Jamal’s short life up to the point of his appearance on the show vividly illustrate the misery and degradation of extreme poverty, the desperation that leads to crime, and also the increasing opportunities in India as it begins to play a large part in the new world economy. This broad background canvas is overlaid with the relationships, choices and events that shape Jamal and eventually land him on a television show watched by millions.
Jamal’s stint on the show is no less difficult. Prem needles him contemptuously at every turn even as Jamal’s winnings pile up. The day’s shooting ends as he wins the Rs. 10,000,000, and he is scheduled to return the next day for the final question—if the police absolve him of cheating. The ultimate prize: Rs. 20,000,000, a phenomenal amount which would change his life completely, although money is not his object.
Will Jamal be allowed to go back to the show? Can he win the jackpot? Will he find his true love Latika and rescue her from Javed’s clutches?
And did Anil Kapoor deliver in his English-speaking debut? He most certainly did! He is just great as the cynical, arrogant game-show host. He’s never been one of my favorites (not that I dislike him) but he is superb here and shows a charisma that I’ve only recently seen in him (also in Welcome and Tashan).
As for our other “Bollywood” actors: Irfan Khan plays the part of the police inspector unwillingly sucked in by Jamal’s life story with his usual effortlessness. And as I’ve said, Mahesh Manjrekar is truly scary in his fleeting appearances as the ruthless don who controls Salim and Latika’s lives.
The rest of the cast is perfect too: the child actors who play Jamal, Salim and Latika at two different ages and the grownups who play them as adults are all spot on. It’s shot completely on location in India with Boyle’s trademark gritty realism, and bombards you with sensation at the same pace and with the same force that India itself does (thanks to great editing it isn’t overdone though). Despite the harsh environment, this is a fairy tale which works beautifully; a film about hope, and about possibilities—not just surviving, but thriving; about making the right decisions, not the easy ones. The person who consistently makes good choices throughout his life (not only between A, B, C, or D) is rewarded at the end, and who can’t love a message like that?
I highly recommend it; if it isn’t an Oscar contender I’ll be very surprised (and disappointed). And stick around for the end credits: they roll over a Bollywood-style dance number with music by AR Rahman (whose background score throughout hits all the right notes—ah! sorry!—too). He might just get an Oscar nomination as well.
Images source: Slumdog Millionaire official website
[Updated to add more photos on 11-14-08. I *heart* pictures.]