Slumdog Millionaire, 4/5

Rated R. Click here to view the trailer.

(Yeah, I just now saw Slumdog Millionaire. I’m behind the times.)

It’s is a good movie, but I’m not quite convinced it’s really that good a movie. A Best Picture winner should be awesome, and Slumdog Millionaire just isn’t there.

The movie begins with Jamal (Dev Patel) in an interrogation cell. He’s a suspected cheat on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He’s answered all but the final, 20,000 rupee question but how is he doing it? He’s an ignorant Untouchable. A minority Muslim who has grown up on the streets and in the gutters, stealing what he can to survive. A slumdog (Hey! That’s the title of the movie!).

So the show’s producers torture him (seriously?) to find out how he immediately knows trivia like who’s face is on the American $100 bill, the inventor of the revolver and the name of third Musketeer. As luck would have it, the troubles and trials of his hard-knock life play out like Trivial Pursuit cheat sheet and we flash back to episodes from his childhood, adolescence and teenage years as he explains his answers for each one. It’s a clever plot structure, even if it is a little inelegant.

Along with the trivia lessons, we watch Jamal (played as a boy by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and his brother, Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) struggle to survive as orphaned Oliver Twists. They meet up with Latika (Rubiana Ali) and Jamal instantly falls in love with her. The three are “rescued” by a corrupt leader of an orphanage, where unbelievably horrible things happen. Events happen, things transpire, and boys have to leave Latika behind. When we catch up with them a few year later, Latika works as a “dancer” while Jamal and Salim are hustling tourist and stealing shoes at the Taj Mahal. Ever the romantic, Jamal hasn’t forgotten about Latika. Later, Salim turns to the Dark Side and it’s Jamal’s undying love for his long-lost Latika that inspires him to try out for the game show in the hopes that she is watching.

The contrast between the muddy slums and, well, anything resembling civilization is striking. It’s almost unbelievable that people still live this way, and India isn’t even as bad as some of its neighbors. The acting is also surprisingly strong, especially among the children. Patel is very good as well. Pinto doesn’t really do much in the movie except look pretty, but that’s OK because she is pretty. The Indian version of Regis Philbin, Anil Kapoor, stole the show for me. His beard creeped me out, but in a good way. Director Danny Boyle (Train Spotting) keeps things interesting visually, but there was so much going on that I was exhausted by the time the credits rolled.

It’s colorful, gritty, tells an engrossing story and we all know I love a good destiny-driven love story. But I feel the movie banks too much on its novelty and makes use of an extremely artificial and patronizing narrative structure. Imagine if the story took place in Omaha with the US version of the game show. I have a feeling that’s what probably what Indians think of Slumdog Millionaire. I doubt it would have won eight Oscars if Americans weren’t so eager to prove to each other that we care about the plight of orphans of India. I may be projecting a little bit here, but each time I hear someone sing its praises I also hear them saying “Oh how cute! They have Who Wants to be a Millionaire too! They think they’re just like us!” or “Look at me! I enjoy a Bollywood film! I’m so multicultual!” Force an American movie go-er to watch a real Bollywood production, and I have a feeling they’d start throwing popcorn at the screen within 20 minutes.

(For an accessible Indian movie actually made by an Indian, check out Monsoon Wedding. Though it’s not true Bollywood either.)

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