Directed by: Danny Boyle || Produced by: Christian Colson
Written by: Simon Beafoy || Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Chheda, Rubina Ali, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Saurabh Shukla
Music by: A.R. Rahman || Cinematography by: Anthony Dod Mantle || Editing by: Chris Dickens || Country: United Kingdom || Language: English, Hindi
Running Time: 120 minutes
Slumdog Millionaire has been referred to as the Cinderella-story of recent Academy Award contenders. After struggling to find funding and then later, distributors, the film spread like wildfire in the Western theatre-circuit and on the critical-sphere. It also inspired its fair dosage of controversy and infamy in its home-setting (but not home of production), India, and by extension, much of South Asia, for its portrayal of Indian poverty. How much grounds this infamy has to stand on largely depends on your ethnic background, it seems, but it’s hard to argue with the film’s content when its cinematographic execution and musical score are so powerful. From energetic foot-chases across slum rooftops, filmed on lightweight HD-cameras that sprint, leap, and slide with their non-professional child actors, to wonderfully paced cross-cutting between flashbacks and present day-storylines, to renowned film-composer A. R. Rahman’s versatile soundtrack, it becomes obvious by film’s end that Slumdog Millionaire generated much fame and controversy because it earned it.
Much has been made of the love-story central to Slumdog’s story, but I would like to give credit to the union of the two brothers in the script, played by Dev Patel and Madhur Mittal. While they are simple underdog characters on the surface, as one of my peers pointed out, they also each represent a different philosophy on how to live one’s life. The protagonist, Jamal (Patel), embodies idealism in the sense that he strives to live his life in a true and pure way. He has a clear set of morals and codes of conduct that he assigns to everyone, not just those close to him. His older brother, Salim (Mittal), is a metaphor for pragmatism and realism. Salim is a survivor. He makes his way through life with the lone goal of self-promotion, only occasionally pausing to help those close to him. He is rarely altruistic. Morals are a guideline rather than a rule-book for him. Throughout the story, Slumdog’s script never clearly decides which path is the correct one. It hints that both are needed to successfully navigate through life, but beyond that, remains silent as far as philosophical preaching goes. I love its thematic ambiguity.
Slumdog Millionaire’s mix of love-story formula, coming-of-age narratives, and a philosophical underdog spirit are what make the movie work. I freely admit that multiple aspects of Slumdog are overused in Bollywood, Hollywood, and other film industries. However, it is the combination, chemistry, and delivery of all these various elements that make Slumdog Millionaire great. Much of this is courtesy of Simon Beaufoy’s succinct script, while the energy with which Danny Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle imbue it goes a long way toward refreshing these often stale formulas.
Speaking of the film’s technical elements, Slumdog’s handheld cinematography, color-correction, and non-linear editing are superb. Some will attempt to bully SM on its narrative believability, but there is no way in hell anyone can chastise how it is shot, and in particular how those shots were arranged in post-production. Multiple scenes stand out for their slick, inventive camerawork, such as the opening slum chase scene, the night train escape sequence, and the climax’s gangster shootout. Editing stands out in particular given how well the questionnaire and flashback-sections are interwoven with each other and various musical montages.
Lastly, for those who cry foul at the less than flattering depiction of India, and/or the so-called imitation of Bollywood cinema for Western audiences, you need to get your head out of your ass. Condemning a movie solely on these grounds is asinine, as it’s a completely subjective reaction to the film’s content, not the manner in which that content was committed to film. A movie should not be judged based on how much it agrees with your worldview or political opinions. With all the criticism of other large, powerful nations like the United States, Great Britain, China, and Russia so common in the motion picture industry, anyway, I’m not sure what the big deal is with Slumdog. Besides, I doubt a man of A. R. Rahman’s stature and patriotism (who, among other things, wrote this song) would commit to writing an entire soundtrack (for which he accepted two Academy Awards) for a movie he believed maliciously attacked India.
I will also argue that this film does not take a low-brow, manipulative mode of self-righteousness the way films like James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) and Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) do. The dense, beautiful, and sometimes dangerous streets of Mumbai are the setting for this underdog epic, not the focus. This story could be transplanted to any cultural setting and it would have the same or similar impact, because the cultural setting is not the point. Anyone who watches Slumdog with an unbiased, clearheaded perspective can see that the film is in no way exploitative — it is not “slum porn.” The film is merely realistic, it is merely honest. I guarantee you that if this exact same film had been produced by an Indian studio, South Asians would be raving about its progressive social commentary. The film’s reception by South Asian audiences versus practically everybody else baffles me.
Slumdog Millionaire is one of the more optimistic and crowd-pleasing Academy-favorites, that much is for sure. It remains lauded for its cinematographic energy and pulsating music, and relatively controversial for its diegetic background. From my point of view, it is not a ripoff of Hindi films. It has virtually nothing in common with them as far as style, tone, and editing are concerned. Given its story and characters, I think that is a good thing. Because of its aforementioned strengths, I argue that this is one of the few Academy Award-sweeps that deserved every Oscar it received.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Danny Boyle showcases some of his best and most energetic camerawork, taking advantage of Anthony Mantle’s glorious location-cinematography. Bombay bustles and ripples with emotion, while its surrounding slums reek of both human decay and raw grit. A.R. Rahman proves how much more effective South Asian film scoring has become in place of America’s once great, bombastic soundtracks. Our two leads make for relatable yet entirely opposite characters.
— However… some dialogue is silly and melodramatic. I suppose the line, “You want to see the real India? There it is!” was kinda asking for it…
? Too many tragedies need to be balanced out by more Cinderella-stories.