‘Slumdog Millionaire': A Stunning Masterpiece

Slumdog Millionaire immediately plunges viewers into a tension-filled vignette. The film’s 18-year-old protagonist, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), is a contestant on the Indian version of the television game show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The audience erupts with boisterous applause as Jamal elects to answer a question that could win him 20 million rupees (more than $400,000). However, time has expired, so that question will have to wait until the next broadcast.

The show's smarmy host/producer, Prem (Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor), resents Jamal’s burgeoning popularity and is suspicious of his improbable success. After all, Jamal is an orphan boy who grew up in the slums of Mumbai and is devoid of a formal education. He currently works as a lowly chai wallah in a call center. How could he possibly know the answers to esoterica? Prem posits that Jamal must be part of a conspiracy, in which he has somehow been fed the answers in advance by a confederate.

As that night’s episode concludes, Jamal is forcibly whisked off to the police station. There, he is subjected to torture techniques that are ordinarily reserved for terrorists. Jamal refuses to admit any wrongdoing and steadfastly professes his innocence. The discerning police inspector (Irfan Khan) is swayed by the lad’s apparent earnestness and his apparent disinterest in material wealth. So…why is Jamal on the show and how does he know all the answers?

The film commences a series of intermittent flashbacks, which provide Jamal’s picaresque back-story. We meet a 7-year old Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and his slightly older brother, Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail), who have joined a pickup game of cricket on an airport tarmac. Security guards chase the boys through the narrow streets of a Mumbai slum. The siblings escape, only to be greeted by a violent Hindu mob. They rampage through the Muslim neighborhood, where Jamal’s family lives.  Houses are burnt down and Jamal’s mother is among those killed.

Parentless and homeless, the two lads ferret out an exposed shanty. Espying a girl, Latika (Rubina Ali), squatting alone outside in a torrential downpour, the empathetic Jamal invites her in to share the newfound space. Later, all three of the street children are seemingly rescued by a man who turns out to be a Fagin-like exploiter. Jamal and Salim manage to escape this predator, just as he is about to gouge out their eyeballs to enhance their earning potential as beggars. Latika is recaptured, then forced into prostitution.

Adapting the debut novel by Vikas Swarup, Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) has created a compelling screenplay. It captures the richness of the source tome and creates a structure ideally suited for cinematic exposition.
Genre-hopping director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Millions) has elicited strong performances from the entire cast. Particularly impressive are the naturalistic portrayals by the endearing child actors. Contributing to their relaxed screen presence is Boyle’s decision to have them speak in their native Hindi tongue and employ subtitles, rather than compel them to speak in stilted English. 

Slumdog Millionaire presents images of the abject poverty of people living in primitive squalor without the niceties of modern plumbing. These are juxtaposed with a view of the affluent subdemographic in a post-modern India, which is steeped in the global economy and fervid capitalism. The stark contrast generates a social commentary, which is incisive without ever becoming didactic.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle has provided a dazzling, kaleidoscopic visual text, including shots that are technically mind-boggling. The score by A.R. Rahman contributes to the quintessentially Indian feel of the film. The editing here is topnotch, adroitly intercutting between the present and flashback timelines, without any dissipation of dramatic tension or conceptual continuity.

Slumdog Millionaire, is stunning and deeply moving masterpiece, replete with universal themes, perspicacious social commentary, and consummate craftsmanship.

****, Rated R (for some violence, disturbing images and language), 114 minutes

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