Last night we left ... fed, watered, pajamed and Wii engrossed little kids with visiting Grandma for a few hours while the husband and I went to see a movie.
What movie did we watch?
First let me state that I went to watch the movie with few expectations. The reason for this is two fold.
Many years ago, my first brush with a film dealing with the sweet sour lives of children in urban poverty was the iconic Salaam Bombay. My appreciation of the honesty with which the brutal lives of street children was depicted in this film, however soon turned to dust. Within a few weeks I saw a Portugese language film on PBS TV. The film was Brazilian I think and I cannot remember the name at all. This Portugese language film was made chronologically before Salaam Bombay. To say that Salaam Bombay was a straight frame by frame lift from the Portugese language film would be stating the obvious. I think I lost some respect for Mira Nair as a filmaker and Sooni Taraporewala as an original scriptwriter (not an adaptation) at that point.
Recently, a few months ago I saw another well received Brazilian film "City of God" dealing with the abject travails of children and young adults in a Rio Slum. The film had an "in your face, punch in the guts" sensibility about it. Brutal storytelling about brutal lives. I think for a few nights, I dreamed about the violence I saw rather than the shaded human stories woven into the film. For me, that is never a good thing.
I did not have much information about Slumdog Millionare until I actually saw it. I had read something about it in entertainment magazines and had read the announcements about the Golden Globe nominations. However, I did not know anyone who actually had seen the movie and had an informed opinion about it.
So you see, I went into the theatre, determinedly a blank slate.
Like Shehrezade wove a thousand Arabian stories of suspense and intrigue into an instrument prolonging her life everyday, director Danny Boyle and scriptwriter Simon Beufoy have woven a very taut web of a believeable story that kept me suspensefully at the edge of my seat until the last second.
Until the lights came back on in the theatre, to put me back in time and space... squarely into seemingly safe and priviledged suburban America.... I was lost in the Mumbai of my most honest romantic dreams and my excruciatingly brutal nightmares. This is a Mumbai that actually exists. I know that. You probably know that too. You and I have both seen and walked by all the incidents that make up this movie. Walked by them a thousand times and never seen them for what they are.
This is a story masterfully told with an Indian sensibility. Yes, I said Danny Boyle has an Indian sensibility. He totally "gets" it. He understands the way Indians think. He sees the colors we see. He hears the sounds and the music we hear and yes he can even smell the smells that we smell (big scene there). He understands how we live cheek by jowl, rich with the poor, with poverty and brutality and without judgement he presents the whole picture. No mean achivement this. He understands that we see heroes and villans perhaps differently from a western sensibility. He understands that in the Indian cultural context we can also view both Truthfullness and Deception sometimes as an "amoral" quality rather than only in Judeo Christian influenced immoral/moral categories. There is a lot of unspoken philosophy in this movie at many levels, but still the story telling reigns supreme.
I do not want to give much of the story line away so I will just touch briefly on the touchpoints of the story. The film follows the life of a street urchin called Jamal, his brother Salim and Jamal's object of yearning, a girl called Latika. They are all orphaned as children and left to the vagaries of street life. Harrowing and mind numbing encounters with gangsters controlling child beggers follow. Salim and Jamal are able to escape from the beggers gang. Alas, Latika is left behind. She will be sold into slavery as a prostitute of many kinds, in later years. The children grow up, each persons character honed in a unique way, each streetwise and each with a different path to and a different version of success and stability. A life on the knife edge of power and money in the pay of a gangster for Salim, a life as a chaiwala in a modern office setting for Jamal, and a reluctant gangsters moll for Latika. Every one of Jamal's actions and decisions is always influenced by his yearning for a reunion with Latika. He engineers an opportunity to compete in "Kaun Banega Crorepati", not for the joy of winning or for the money but because it is his chance to connect with Latika. He wins at every level on the game despite the motivations and machinations of a smarmy game show host with his own megalomanic agenda. How he manages to win at the game forms the storytelling framework of the movie.
Does he win the final game and does he get the girl? And what of Salim? For that my friends, I reccomend that you immerse yourself in one of the finest depictions of the surreal life that is the underbelly of Mumbai.
The pacing of the film is taut and very much like a thriller movie. There is suspense aplenty. There were absoluetly no moments of respite, and I was on the edge of my seat till the closing credits.
The music by AR Rahman was perfect for this Western made film with a very Indian heart. When the score of a film is seamlessly woven into the visual story and you cannot seperate one from the other or point out any part of the film as having a particularly striking musical moment, you know you have struck gold. AR Rahman has struck the mother lode of gold here.
The photography is gritty and suits the pacing of the film and its locations perfectly. The locations and sets had plenty of attention to detail and I could not find any fault with them at all.
Dont leave before the closing credits are done. The bollywood lover in me was satiated by what happened there!
There were only two problems I had with the movie. Both were script quibbles. One was the strangely unidimentional communal riots depicted with no backstory. Perhaps that was just part of the story the director wanted to get over quickly and carry on with HIS story. The other problem was completely surprising to me. It was the unsophisticated and standup comedic depiction of western tourists in India. I imagine that the director and scriptwriter were once themselves such tourists in India. In the movie they paint tourists in unsubtle, broad, brush strokes almost like caricatures in a Bollywood movie. Perhaps they had become too Indian in thought by the time those scenes were canned!
Dev Patel (Jamal) is perfectly cast. His chronological age belies his maturity as an actor. As Jamal, Dev gets into character seamlessly this vulnerable, brave and flawed hero. A bollywood seasoned actor would have been too much of a hero type and totally miscast. The role needed an unknown, and an actor who looked like he might fail as a human, to look and act the part of Jamal. Dev delivers.
Frieda Pinto (Latika) has a luminous quality about her. Beautiful in a touchable sort of way, and unselfconcious she IS Latika. I predict big things for this actress on the international scene as long as she has good handlers. The raw material is there for the molding.
Madhur Mittal (Salim) did a competant job, as did the rest of the supporting case. Irrfan Khan, Saurabh Shukla, and Mahesh Manjrekar have small, but important parts that were played with thier customary ease.
The "big star but most underrated actor who did really, really great" award must go to Anil Kapoor as the smarmy game show host with his own agenda. He played to the gallery when he must and depicted all the complexities of a flawed megalomanic with subtlety and very effectively. So yes Anil Kapoor, its been a long time after Parinda when you did anything other than ham through a role. Enjoy your moment. And give us more. Please! A fan is waiting.
What did I love most about the movie?
The movie depicts romantic idealism at its best even within the limitations of the underbelly of the frenetic and monetarily driven city that is Mumbai. Jamal's love for Latika was for me one of the strongest and most evocative depictions of hope amidst barbarism in recent movie making. We need more of that now. Hope that is!
So Hopefully you will see this movie. Tell Anil, I sent you!