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Itís no accident that a scene at the start of Slumdog Millionaire looks familiar.  A burst of saffron-coloured light and the thrum of Bhangra pop follows a pair of small boys high-tailing it through the mud and filthy back alleys of their Bombay shantytown racing to escape the police.  Now, move the scene to the backstreets of Edinburgh and replace the thumping Indian music with Iggy Popís Lust for Life, call the two boys Renton and Spud and thereís your huckleberry.  The affectionate reminder of Trainspotting is wildly appropriate, for Slumdog Millionaire is nearly as much of a revolutionary breakout for the director of both films, Danny Boyle, as was his 1996 classic.

Jamal Mailk is a lucky, lucky young man.  Heís done the unthinkable and has correctly answered nearly all the questions on the Indian version of the ever-popular Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (- basically the same as our US version except for the hostís occasional need to get up and boogie).  Jamalís amazing skill and knowledge is the toast of the country, yet not everyone is pleased with his success.  While the populace thrills and gathers around their television sets awaiting Jamalís return to answer the final question, Jamal is recovering from the torturous interrogation of the police who have been led to believe the boy is cheating.  There is simply no way to account for this uneducated boy from the slums doing what has never been done before and winning 20 million rupees.  What we are shown by way of flashbacks is that Jamal does know the answer to every question through hard life lessons ingrained on his heart and soul as every answer happens to relate to a different situation in the young manís tragic past.   Weíre taken from the impoverished childhood of Jamal and his dominating older brother Salim, where they play in the dirt dressed in rags, running childish scams for money.  Poor but happy, they are content to live in squalor as does their entire town until the day a religious riot breaks out and their mother is innocently caught in the onslaught.  Fending for themselves, the boys, now homeless and joined by a fellow waif, the shy Latika, are herded by an orphanís home where they are trained to beg in the streets using all manner of coercion.  The children soon discover that their pleading and singing arenít sufficient for their benefactors, who know that maimed and crippled children earn more as beggars than kids who are whole.  The men have no qualm at doing unspeakable things to their charges to get a few extra rupees.  Once again, the boys are set adrift, relying on their wits to get them through.  As Bombay becomes Mumbai and the boys grow into teenagers, Salimís path is wildly different from the gentler, cautious Jamal, as the older brother aligns himself with the local gangsters.  In the meantime, Jamal labors as a busboy in a restaurant and eventually rises in the working world as a chai wallah (tea boy).  Jamal worries about his reckless sibling and yearns for the lost Latika, who has been making her own way in the world as best she can, eventually becoming the mistress of Salimís mob boss.  Who Wants to Be a Millionaire is the only good fortune to ever happen to Jamal, representing a better life for him and the two people he cares about and even this small gift of fate is threatened to be taken from him.

For a director who once said he does better on his home turf, Boyle seems to have taken that statement and ripped it into confetti.  Boyleís batteries seem have to been recharged by the challenge of filming entirely in India with an Indian cast and most of the dialog in Hindu.  Slumdog Millionaire was clearly an adventure for the filmmaker and the result is a brilliant, heart-wrenching Charles Dickens tale by way of Bollywood.  All the hyperkinetic, textural camerawork and energy that one expects from a Danny Boyle film is here multiplied times 10 with the enthusiastic embrace of the cast, particularly Dev Patel as the grown Jamal and the very young children playing Jamal, Salim and Latika in their youngest days.  They are so unaffected and natural that it only makes watching the brutality of their lives all the more poignant.  The movieís smiling faced Fagin orphanage master is far more the monster than could ever have been read in Oliver Twist and his cruelty toward his charges is harrowing and unforgettable.  Not to say the film isnít laced with humour; another look back to Trainspotting is a groan-inducing leap of faith into the bowels of an outhouse that one character makes in order to get a precious autograph from a visiting movie star.  As the older Jamal, Dev Patelís puppy-dog eyes reflect the endless agonies heís faced since he was born and alternately, his rare smiles make Jamalís joys the audienceís joys.  You root for this underdog to come out on top even as the police are electrocuting him and mobsters are disfiguring his long lost love.  As would be expected from a Danny Boyle film, the soundtrack is remarkable, featuring original music by A.R. Rahman and songs from M.I.A.  While no one in the film breaks into song as they would in a Bollywood film, Boyle is aware enough of the territory to give us one glorious life-affirming ending that really puts a bow on this lovely gift of a film thatís one of the best of the year.

It is written: Slumdog Millionaire is truly a one in a million. 

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Nov 9th, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Courtesy of  Fox Searchlight Pictures

 

 

 

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