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picture - Slumdog MillionaireFilm Review

by John Topping

published November 14, 2008


Slumdog Millionaire

rated R

now playing in select theaters


There was a sweep of excitement that ran through the screening of non-critics with whom I saw Slumdog Millionaire.  “Mark my words,” a friend exclaimed, “this is going to be the breakthrough Bollywood film in America!”  Actually, it’s British, although it takes place entirely in India (“Bollywood” is contraction of Bombay and Hollywood, popularly used to denote mainstream Indian cinema).  Other than that technical detail, however, she may be right.  Slumdog Millionaire is positioned to be this year’s hot indie sleeper; the Juno of 2008, as it were.  All of the early pre-release critics’s and readers’s reviews had not near-unanimous, but absolutely unanimous praise. 


And now there’s me, here to tell you:  Well, uh, it’s okaaaaay.  I guess.  It is definitely well-crafted, beautifully shot and edited, wonderfully acted, and able to build suspense even with someone like me glancing at it askew.  I might have been sad had it remained completely undiscovered, as almost happened when it was abandoned by the sinking of Warner Independent; but it’s the kind of film that, once it catches fire, the more popular it gets, the more one dislikes it, simply because it is just okay, nothing approaching greatness.


The beginning is so reminiscent of City of God that I thought it might be the same director, simply switching to the shantytowns of Mumbai instead of Rio de Janeiro.  But no, it’s good ol’ Danny Boyle, he of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later fame (two films which I liked, particularly the latter).  Oh, yes, and Loveleen Tandan, the Indian co-director (although, do not misunderstand, it remains A Danny Boyle Film).


The story follows Jamal, his brother Salim, and the girl/woman Jamal loves, Latika, from childhood orphans to young adults.  Throughout their lives, Jamal loses Latika and spends years trying to find her again, only to lose her again, largely because she is hostage to the local mob and other ne’er-do-wells.  The framing device of the film is that Jamal, a slumdog (i.e., he’s been poor his entire life) is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? – having joined because he knows that Latika watches the show – and racks up so much money that he is arrested on charges of fraud.  As the police give him a chance to explain how he knew the answer to each question, we launch into a series of flashbacks that explain the unlikely knowledge, which gives us a chronology of his live.


I’m not so sure how the India Chamber of Commerce is going to feel about it.  Other than the hero and the woman he longs for, all levels of Indian society – rich and poor, children and adults, family and strangers – are portrayed as ruthless, conniving, evil, despicable, two-faced, mean-spirited, violent, reprehensible, insensitive, untrustworthy a-holes.  I could go on – any negative adjective you can think of is bound to fit at least a handful of the characters.


Dev Patel as the 18-year-old Jamal gives an understated performance, though he appears a little shell-shocked (and who could blame him, after living such a horrible life?).  Anil Kapoor, who plays the game show host, is one of India’s most famous actors.  You may remember him from Humko Deewana Kar Gaye.  No?  Then you must have seen Hamara Dil Aapke Paas Hai.  Now don’t tell me you didn’t see Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja.  (Oh, man, you’re really hopeless.)


Is it asking too much for credibility?  I know that suspension of disbelief is a film-watching requirement, but I prefer my serious dramas to be more rooted in reality.  Jamal is beat up, hanged by his wrists and electrocuted by the police on the same night he does the show (for suspicion of cheating), then found innocent and released in order to attend the next day’s taping, with nary a scratch, limp or any signs of having gone through a horrifically traumatizing experience.  As a child locked in an outhouse when his favorite movie star comes to town, he pulls out a picture of said star to have autographed, holds it in the air, holds his nose, jumps through the hole into the messy pit below, emerges covered head to toe with creamy feces, runs (still covered in poop) holding the photo, which is in perfect condition, pushes his way through the crowd and gets the autograph, after which his brother sells it, still in fairly pristine condition with no signs of shit stains on it.  And Latika, the girl he spends his life longing for – what, really, is the connection he feels for her?  They meet as children by chance, and he spends the rest of his life variously losing her and risking everything to find her, with an obsession that surpasses James Stewart’s in Vertigo.  But what is their connection, aside from needing a plot device?


If such things don’t bother you, and if you fancy yourself an admirer of foreign and independent cinema (and you cite, as examples, The Full Monty or Kinky Boots), then Slumdog Millionaire may be just the foreign/independent film for you.  Speaking of which, I understand that Slumdog is being marketed as a … comedy?  They forgot to add that it’s the most brutal, violent and unfunny comedy you’ll ever see.


johntopping @


read the review of Slumdog Millionaire by Kevin Bowen


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