On the eve of its release today in India, the British independent film “Slumdog Millionaire” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. It’s already won four Golden Globes: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Score. The movie’s up for all of those categories at the Oscars, and may well win some if not all of them, and then some.
We saw the film just last weekend and I was stunned by its power and eloquence, and for me, its sheer entertainment value in spite of the grimness of the life it portrays. It deserves its kudos.
If you haven’t heard of it, it’s the story of a two orphaned brothers from the slums of Bombay — now Mumbai — and their relationship as they survive their childhood and grow into their destinies. One, Jamal, played as an adult by the boyish Dev Patel, falls in love with an orphaned girl, Latika (luminously played as an adult by Freida Pinto).
Jamal’s devotion to Latika, even though they’re repeatedly separated, sometimes for years, and his dedication to finding her again, is the film’s narrative thread.
But “Slumdog”‘s visual leitmotif is the chaotic and tragic backdrop of modern Indian life. The story follows the characters from childhood through their teen years and into adulthood, in and out of the utter poverty that pervades the teeming slums. It’s structured as a series of flashbacks with Jamal, who’s been arrested for suspicion of cheating after winning 10 million rupees on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” explaining to a detective how he came to know all the answers he was asked on the show.
His life experiences coincidentally gave him the knowledge and prepared him to reach the next day’s final question, for a possible payoff of 20 million rupees.
Almost immediately, viewers are taken on a breathless tour of the shantytown as a group of kids are chased by police, the camera moving as if the audience is one of the fleeing kids, looking for the next escape route. Then the view shifts to the cops’ perspective, or others in the alleys, even a sleeping dog who’s not the slightest bit fazed by all the commotion. The colors, the clatter and closed-in settings convey claustrophia … and incredible excitement.
The movie opens up visually and feels pastoral only when the brothers get out of town atop a train and live like hobos, then spend some time scamming tourists at the Taj Mahal, and in one striking scene where the grownup Jamal meets up with his brother Salim (played by Madhur Mittal), now a low-level gangster, in a skyscraper construction site high above where their shantytown had been located.
Modern Mumbai’s financial wealth has paved over the poverty and pushed the poor elsewhere.