Directed by: Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irfaan Khan and Mahesh Manjrekar
**WARNING: CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS! If you have not seen the film, please see it and then read my review!**
Man, its cold. Below freezing in fact in London at the time I went to see the film. So one hopes to go into a warm cosy cinema and forget for an hour or two (three if a Bollywood film – you get an interval too!) about the cold. No such luck for me – in the cinema I went to, the heating had broken down and we were warned when buying our tickets that it is as cold in there as it was outside. Wrapping my faithful over-sized scarf around more tightly, my thoughts were: this film better be bloody good to distract me from the cold.
Even though we are only in early January, Slumdog Millionaire is emerging as the must-see film, dominating awards ceremonies and being raved about from pillar to, erm, sides of buses all telling us this is the “feel good” movie of the year. What really caught my attention was all these articles about the film (that don’t give away the content) throwing in the word Bollywood into their headlines. As I try not to read any review until after I’ve seen the film and written my own, I must admit I felt like David Dickinson on his way to an auction to appraise the goods and see if they could be classed as Bollywood. After far too many adverts (25 mins worth -just because a film is short, it doesn’t mean fill the time with more adverts), the film finally began…
Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal (Patel) a tea boy from the slums who is on India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (Though in India, its actually called Kaun Banega Crorepati, a near direct translation of the English title) and is one question away from winning the main prize, Unfortunately, he is arrested and interrogated by a nameless police inspector (Khan) who demands to know how Jamal, a boy from the slums who has little to no formal education, knows the answers to the questions. Through a series of flashbacks at different points in his life, we learn more of Jamal’s life, including his difficult relationship with his older brother Salim (Mittal), how a corrupt ganglord Javed (Manjrekar) affects his life and his undying love for Latika (Pinto)…
With a story that grabs you straight away, it is not hard to get into the world of Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, the film feels fresh and familiar at the same time, and allows you to appreciate the amazing cinematography and the crisp editing as we are put on a tour of the slums in Mumbai, almost being able to smell the stench emitting from the screen. I also liked the way the film unfolded slowly, so that even if we know what happens at the end (when its called the “feel good movie of the year”, you know our protagonist will get the money and the girl! Note to self and fellow reviewers – be more vague with praise in future) we grow to care about the characters and are eager for the gaps in knowledge to be filled.
However, coming from a Bollywood perspective, the biggest thing that bothered me in the film was the language. I felt something was lost in translation and thought a lot of the dialogue would have had a more profound effect if it had been in Hindi. Proof of this is seen when the characters do speak Hindi (and the quite innovative use of subtitling – with the coloured background and in the mid centre of the screen, can we have more foreign language films with subs like that please?) I felt the film flowed much more easily when Hindi was spoken and would have helped Slumdog Millionaire make the same (if not a bigger) impact than the film has made.
Also, in coming to care for the characters, I wish the film had provided a few more answers to questions such as how Jamal and Salim learn English so fluently without Indian accents or how exactly it is Jamal gets onto Who Wants…. These questions are perhaps answered on a second viewing but I feel the information given was vague. Whilst a little ambiguity never hurt a film, I think because the Slumdog Millionaire establishes a gritty realistic tone from the start, it would have been nice to see this point followed through in all aspects of the film. Although, I did like the fact that the suspension of belief device is used sparingly but on the other hand, this decreased its Bollywood value as Bollywood likes to slap on that gloss over any cracks in logic and throw ambiguity in the face of the audience when an amazing coincidence takes place and often pulls it off (I doubt Dickinson could come up with such a scientific explanation of the magic of Bollywood!)
In terms of performances, I thought firstly, the young Jamal, Salim and Latika were amazing and did feel my heart in my throat at times as these vulnerable children are exposed to some horrific situations – it was like watching a real life story. Similarly, the teenage versions of the trio also impressed and gave the present day three a hard act to follow. However, I thought Dev Patel was good in a suitably rabbit in headlights but quietly determined way. Madhur Mittal was also very good as Salim and though Frieda Pinto had little to do, she gave a good account of herself. The Bollywood guard don’t let down the side either with Anil Kapoor, Mahesh Manjrekar and Irrfan turning in decent performances too (if anything, I felt Irfaan was underutilised).
Alongside the performances, I loved the City of God vibe to the film with the fluid camera movement and I liked the way the film touched upon different issues, not exploring them with depth but paying service nonetheless. Whether it was the foreign perceptions of India (from tourists who will hear any old story about the Taj Mahal to annoyed Scots being harrased by call centre workers) or the unfailing resilience of the slum dwellers in the most appalling circumstances. Its very clear that the film is an outsider to India’s perspective on the slums but nonetheless, it is a faithful one and this viewpoint is pretty much the glue that holds the film together and makes it work. I also loved A.R.Rehman’s score which fitted the film like a glove and added to the atmosphere.
Recently, in discussion with someone who had seen the film, they felt Slumdog Millionaire was not really a “feel good” movie and I can see what they mean by that. This is not a film that will have you leaving the cinema feeling warm and fuzzy (certainly not in my case – though I had kept my coat on, my feet were frozen by the end of the film!) but it’s not a dour depressing movie either. It really is an experience in that it gives a glimpse into world that is not shown on screen very often (well, not in this way at least) and I would say Slumdog is an amuse bouche of a Bollywood film rather than the real deal. But it still very much worth a watch and if this is the standard of film we are getting this early on in the year, 2009 may turn out to be a very interesting year for films in general.