Though starting off as a depressing and shockingly-blatant picture of life in the slums of Mumbai, India, “Slumdog Millionaire” wraps up with a whirlwind of confetti, love, and triumph.
The film is a drawn-out explanation of main character Jamal Malik’s unprecedented performance on India’s “Who Wants to be A Millionaire?” Convinced the boy is cheating, Mumbai police arrest him and try to torture him into admitting it. Instead of a confession, they get a series of poignant and heart-breaking pictures from his life – each one explaining how he knew the answers.
Because the film covers a decade of Jamal’s life, three different actors were used for each of the three main characters: Jamal, his brother Salim, and their slum-girl friend Latika. I found this approach useful because it cued me in to approximately how much time had passed and when. Each of the nine key actors demonstrated talent, charisma, and sincerity.
The continal plight of Latika is the driving force of the plot. Jamal spends nearly the entire film looking for her, finding her, rescuing her, and losing her again. By the climax, the audience is nearly desperate for a resolution, whatever it may be, because for him to lose her again will be just too heartbreaking.
As in any good search-and-rescue story, there are chase scenes every 10 minutes. In “Slumdog Millionaire,” unfortunately, this involves a lot of dodgy camera-work, quick cuts, and blurry, bouncing close-ups. It got old very quickly.
Some of these vertigo-inducing scenes, however, are counteracted by pictures of intense beauty and/or shocking scale. The opening shot shows a close up from above of a single home in the slums; gradually, the camera backs off until the audience realizes the true scale of Mumbai’s poor sector – thousands of plastic-roofed squares stretching on endlessly.
Admittedly, I was turned off by the first third of the film. By the time Jamal, Salim, and Latika reach adolescence, the audience has already been subjected to frequent swearing, mob violence, child mutilation, and the sight of someone jumping into a pool of human excrement. I was nearly to the point of saying, Okay, that’s enough. I’m done.
The point that changed my mind happened about halfway through the movie, when Jamal and Salim rescue Latika by storming together into a crime boss’s lair to steal the “little virgin,” as she’s called, away to safety. When they are cornered, Salim pulls out a gun and shoots a man dead.
That action and its aftermath convinced me this was a movie about choice, humanity, and growing up – not just about the inescapable filth of the slums.
“Slumdog Millionaire” is a film with heart – beating, straining, breaking heart. Wrong choices fill the plotline, but they are necessary for the audience to understand what it takes to live and thrive when the whole world is against you. What does it mean to really live?
As each character grows up and enters the world of adults, the design and color palate changes. The world becomes sterile and brightly-colored, with less of the browns and grays that dominated the slums. But leaving the slum behind has not meant access to paradise.
Grown-up Jamal looks around at the lights and sounds of “Who Wants to be A Millionaire” with a bewildered expression, obviously sharing no connection with his surroundings, either the plastic set or the plastic people in the audience. He is adrift, and so is everyone around him.
But Jamal has an anchor, if he can only find it and hold on to it for more than 10 minutes. When he finally rediscovers Latika, their reunion takes place in a train terminal – a place of neither brown filth nor white plastic. It is a median between worlds, like Jamal’s life. When he pushes back Latika’s yellow scarf, her scarred face is far more beautiful than the embroidered fabric she used to hide it. Together they can live between extremes, conforming to no stereotype, not defined by words like ‘slumdog,’ but by their choices and by what they mean to each other.
“Slumdog Millionaire” – a median between Hollywood blockbuster and obscure indie flick. This film is proof that actors without big names can act, and that perseverance and dedication can work miracles. It shows us that redemption is always possible – regardless of sins, regardless of circumstances.
By the end credits, I had forgiven most of the shocking and flinch-worthy scenes that dominated the first half. By the end credits, I wanted to cry, clap, cheer, and rename the movie “Slumdog Miracle.”