Thursday, January 22, 2009

It's a Slum-derful Life

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is a modern day fairy tale, constructed from fragments and memories of a broken life that is ultimately rebuilt in the most unlikely fashion.  The story follows Jamal, a Mumbai-born "slum dog" as he competes on the Indian "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire."  Defying even his own expectations,  Jamal starts winning and the movie shows us how he came to know the answers through a series of flashbacks that are alternately humorous and harrowing.  

What makes it contemporary is the way it is filmed, using cameras that move with dazzling agility, capturing the colors and textures of Mumbai in broad strokes.  The movie has a manic energy, propelled by a Bollywood techno score and editing that constantly builds tension by pairing images of longing and success, heartbreak and redemption, danger and safety.  The movie could be the Indian version of It's A Wonderful Life, because of the way it shows us how every seemingly insignificant choice in life has the potential to change lives.  It also reminds us again and again how far emotional intelligence and street smarts can take us, regardless of our level of education.  The idea is best expressed in a sequence where the game show host feeds Jamal an answer to an upcoming question and Jamal is forced to choose whether to trust the host or his own instincts with 20 million rupees on the line.  

At the center of the film is a sweet love story that requires some suspension of disbelief from more jaded viewers.  I went and saw the movie a second time to see how it would hold up and found it impossible to resist.  Danny Boyle recruited almost an entire cast of unknown actors to lend the project authenticity and they are a key ingredient that accounts for the movie's infectious energy and growing popularity.  Still, there is something even more important that sets Slumdog Millionaire apart from other inspirational rags to riches stories and that is the use of dramatic irony.  Even as we see Jamal winning on the game show, we are made aware concurrently that he will be tortured and questioned by the police.  Every moment of euphoria and hope for the characters is met with setbacks and failure.  Consider how Jamal's clandestine meeting with Latika ends at the train station, or his reunion with his brother Salim, or the film's climax which manages to be both joyful and bittersweet.  Slumdog Millionaire is an urban fairy tale that makes us want to believe, as Jamal does, that destiny can pull us out of suffering and deliver us to a happier place.

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