"Slumdog Millionaire"

Directed by Danny Boyle Review: marion d s dreyfus

Starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irfan Khan

Primed to like it by a colleague last week, I was still caught by surprise by the energy of the "Slumdog" early scenes. The bite of poverty, and the aerial view of the vast Bombay sea of corrugated tin roofs with their endless mucky, interdependent, tangled lives. Begging for rupees yields to diverse plucky polarities in their different lives, eventually leading to nobility.

One recognizes the techniques employed by the armies of the midget mendicants in Nepal, India, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Oceania, North Africa and similar venues where parents are scarce through no fault of their own. You mumble a blessing for the plenty surrounding us, our siblings, our children, our extended families.

The gritty humor and pragmatism shown in the brothers' young-mature existence, in parallel with the nearly surreal unspooling of the rough life they liver without self-consciousness–their rags were their only clothing; their barefoot state just as common; their beautiful mother's shocking and unwarranted death at the brutal beating of rampaging religious fanatics is atypical for a Western film–she is too young, too lovely, too careworn and too protective of her sons to die so brutally, with no commemoration other than her fleeing sons, Salim (Madhur Mittal) and Jamal. She is seen for a few moments, then forever gone. But everything about these young boys' lives is that old schoolyard worldview: unfair. The film utilizes the framing device of a program that is a simulacrum of the same program here, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," which still excites citizens of many countries where the concept of 'millionaire' still resonates. We enter the film as Jamal (Dev Patel) is going through his stepped paces as contestant, escalating the financial ladder. All of India is riven by his climb.

As the film showcased its load of emotional Bombay flashbacks as to how Jamal managed to correctly answer so many diverse questions in the run-up to the jackpot, he is in police custody as a suspect of cheating on the popular game show. I particularly appreciated the protagonist's solemn face and unbroken acting; he gave no hint that he was other than reliving the chaotic and miserable life of the harijan. He sweated out the answers based on his hard-scrabble life. Other actors are equally powerful, and Latika (Frieda Pinto) is beyond gorgeous as the childhood playmate he thought he had forever abandoned to begging or worse. The tough-cookie NYC reviewer audience, usually hard as week-old baguettes, sat enthralled by the hypnotic mix of scenery, charm, motion, dialogue and lushness with soft-focus flashbacks that spent out the minutes of this affecting narrative.

As the story harks back to memes of well-crafted literary fictions favored by Charles Dickens, it touched on some of the derring-do and tension of the "Bourne" trilogy, and the signature elegiac moments of many genre films. What swiftly turned the wonderment to broad beams of delight, however, was the wonderful credits featuring all hands at a Piccadilly Circus-like train depot, and what looks to be the entire population of Mumbai in ecstatic limb-flinging, knee-hoisting, syncopated Bollywood costume-and-motion extravaganzas so beloved on the repeating loops at any of the treacly Indian restaurants in the curry-and-poori alleys of your favorite big town. (In addition to seeing the vast sea of slum corrugated roofs of Mumbai, you get to see the Taj with Raj, too.)

The miraculous thing is, the precarious hand-to-mouth living of the young Jamal and Salim are caustically accurate today, with maybe more chai Wallah (tea-service servant) and computer thrown in than polishing of shoes and reedy singing to gullible tourists. This dingy-scrubbed two hours transports you back 50 years, and magics you, smiling radiantly, into the big shouldered, all-business Bombay today.

Little scatology, no sex, just a deeply felt, panoramic movie movie you can settle into and come out ready to discuss. A spicy tandoori chicken dish of a film: Some hot places, some vegetables, a surprising lumpo here or there, but a hypnotic experience after all's said and done. You feel delight for hours after you leave the theater, and the woes of the Dow are subsumed to the elations of "Slumdog."


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