Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire

Film review by: Witney Seibold




            “Slumdog Millionaire” is a triumph of storytelling; it’s the kind of film that screenwriting teachers show their classes as a superior example of overlapping narrative structure. The film is centered around flashbacks the young hero Jamal (Dev Patel) is having during a filming of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Each question he is asked on the show triggers a flashback, letting us learn his large textured past, as well as root for him to win the game show in the present. In lesser hands, this would have felt like a mere gimmick, but in the hands of the capable director Danny Boyle (“Millions,” “Sunshine,” “Trainspotting”) it becomes a fascinating and moving fable.


            Intercut, additionally, to the flashback scenes, are scenes of Jamal being interrogated by the police. Someone of Jamal’s social and economic station should not be doing as well on this show as he is, you see; Jamal, is a mere chai wallah at a Delhi call station who grew up uneducated and orphaned in the slums of Mumbai. The film, like many recent Bollywood hits, addresses Indian class conflict, as well as some more unpleasant bits of recent Indian history and current crime problems. It’s all Jamal can do to convince the cops that his horrific past is what led him to the answers. Yes, the police even torture him at one point.


            Of course, all of Jamal’s stories – be they about his Oliver-like panhandle-for-hire servitude to a sadistic Fagin, about his gig as an un-learned Taj Mahal tour guide, or about how he snuck into a crime-boss’ mansion – lead to a woman. A sweet young girl named Latika (Freida Pinto) keeps popping up throughout his life, and is eventually poised to become the love of his life. By the end of “Slumdog Millionaire,” we finally know why Jamal is playing, and what victory would truly mean for him.


            I loved the narrative drive of “Slumdog Millionaire.” It’s a clever and moving idea that is executed well. The only problem is that I was more impressed by the storytelling than I was moved by the actual story. By the time we arrived at the strangely melodramatic ending – in which we had sweepingly dramatic shots of people running through the streets to bombastic, noisy music – I felt that the film was ending in a perfect way for the screenwriters rather than for the audiences.


            What’s to account for this sense of cold structure? I think the film’s chronology does it. We are told Jamal’s life story through the questions he is asked on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” However, each question numerically relates to Jamal’s age; question #1 reminds him of the event that happened when he was youngest, question #2 when he was second youngest, etc. This numerated structure of his life subtracted a good deal of the film’s believability. This, paired with the Bollywood ending. The film earns its ending, but, looking back, still feels a bit odd.


            But these are mere imperfections in an otherwise strong and largely enjoyable film. The look of the film is appropriately oversaturated, and the performances are all great. I especially liked Anil Kapoor as the host of the game show, and Mahesh Manjrekar as Jamal’s overbearing slumdog older brother. I, unlike many critics, do not feel this is one of the best films of the year, but it’s still a very good film.

Published in: on January 5, 2009 at 8:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

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