By Michele Leight
soars despite the seriousness of the subject matter, which is
usually reserved for docudramas or documentaries.
From the injustice perpetrated
upon orphaned and vulnerable children in one of Bombay's most
infamous slums to the emotional and mental turmoil that must inevitably
engulf them, this film is a heart-swelling tale of love and loss,
and love regained and triumphant against all possible odds.
If that isn't a winning formula
for a film, what is?
However, British Director Danny
Boyle, with co-director Loveleen Tandon (India), rescues the film
from becoming a predictable melodrama by skewering the intoxicating
beauty, effervescent spirit and sumptuous colors of India with
harsh realities confronting three children who are unable to realize
their potential because they are trapped by poverty and adversity
and ruthlessly exploited by those that seek to profit off their
The vehicle for hope in "Slumdog
Millionaire" is a quiz show, or India's equivalent of "Who
Wants To Be A Millionaire," whose enigmatic host Prem Kumar,
(impressively played by Anil Kapoor), is an ambitious and flawed
character whose manipulative character is a grounding force that
prevents the film from becoming a mawkish soap opera.
Based on the best selling novel
"Q & A" by Vikas Swarup, "Slumdog Millionaire"
was adapted for the screen by Simon Beaufoy. It is unusual to
see an independent film of this caliber emerge from a story straight
out of the saddest reports you never want to read in newspapers
(upon which the original novel is based) about children being
trafficked against their will and managed by thugs for profit
in begging syndicates or intentionally sold by their parents or
orphaned by disaster, religious strife or war and pounced on by
every low life in the neighborhood that look upon them as cash
cows - or calves. Open any newspaper in India and many other countries
and such subject matter is, sadly, only too real.
The ensemble cast gives memorable
performances, with Dev Patel playing adult Jamal Mullick, and
Freida Pinto his love interest, Latika. The children are quite
wonderful, with youngest Salim played by Azharuddin Mohammed and
youngest Jamal by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, both portraying the protagonists
at their most excruciatingly young and vulnerable. The brothers
are orphaned when their mother is killed by an anti-Muslim mob,
and they pick up a "third musketeer," Latika, who is
an orphan living on the streets.
Irfan Khan, who brings credibility
to any role, plays the interrogating police officer when Jamal
is arrested after being accused of cheating on the quiz show.
He is well known to global audiences for his performances in "The
Kite Runner" (see
the review), "The
Namesake," (directed by Meera Nair), "The Darjeeling
Limited," and as the Chief of Police who tracks down Daniel
Pearl's murderer in "A Mighty Heart," among many other
films. His first major role was in "Salaam Bombay,"
directed by Meera Nair.
Be warned, this film is at
times difficult to watch because no one wants to even contemplate
what is done to some of these street children, let alone accept
that it is true, but it is sadly, a horrible and harsh reality
The fast paced story is set
in contemporary Mumbai, famous as the home of Bollywood - India's
equivalent of Hollywood - known to millions of fans across the
globe primarily for musicals that offer hours of unashamedly escapist
entertainment that are often epically scaled - think of an exotic
fusion of Busby Berkeley and Rogers and Hammerstein, and magnify
Escape is usually the goal
of Bollywood films, but things are changing, with major movie
stars taking up causes like AIDS and human rights. Film is a passion
in India, where many of its one billion citizens cite going to
the cinema as their favorite pastime. Even though "Slumdog
Millionaire" is not an escapist extravaganza with lots of
dancing and singing, hopefully people will flock to see it in
India and around the world because it is a cleverly wrought example
of the endless possibilities in contemporary digital filmmaking,
with nothing like the budget reserved for blockbusters. For Bollywood
fans there is a superb dancing and singing routine in the closing
credits, so don't rush out of the movie theatre. Fox Searchlight,
the distributors of "Slumdog Millionaire" offer music
from the film on their official site.
The underlying message of this
film is that it is the children of the poor that are the most
vulnerable to atrocities on the broader scale because they have
no innate value within their own communities and societies - and
even their families. It has now become a sad fact of life that
in some nations the poor sell one or two of their children so
the rest of the family can eat and pay the rent, and very little
is done about it. While the story takes place in India, what happens
to the children is typical of many other countries, so there is
no need for finger pointing. Another spectacularly crafted film
about street children is "City of God," which takes
place in Brazil.
With winsome smiles, and impossibly
large, beautiful black eyes, the three child protagonists in "Slumdog
Millionaire" become inseparable friends born of adversity,
who combat grotesque villains in their individual ways, parrying
every harsh blow dealt them with heart-rending resilience. Their
squalid childhood is set against the backdrop of India's magnificent
beauty, which seduces the senses and the heart even as it plumbs
the depths of unimaginable cruelty and vice, exposing the basest
actions of humanity red raw, a skill at which director Danny Boyle
is a master. There is a longing in them to rise above their circumstances
that relates to all creeds and cultures.
has several cinematic ancestors, but two films immediately come
to mind: Meera Nair's "Salaam Bombay," a contemporary
classic that featured the city's street children, and the exquisitely
crafted, Academy Award winning "Born Into Brothels,"
(see the review) co-directed by Zana Briski and Ross
Kaufmann, that moves the lens in closer on a small group of children
of prostitutes in Calcutta's brothel, called Sonagachi, who dared
to dream of a future and a life away from the squalor and vice
that surrounds them. They fantasize about becoming photographers
and artists after they attend a photography workshop.
Like "Slumdog Millionaire,"
and "City of God" these films capture endangered innocence,
but more importantly the ability of the most brutalized among
us to soar above squalor and abuse by surviving every day, holding
onto dreams and continuing to hope no matter what is done to them.
In the hands of incredibly
talented filmmakers, these films have spawned dozens of other
films that take the viewer places they would probably never willingly
go, like India's "mean streets" rife with criminals
that prey upon the most innocent - orphaned children. These films
would stir even the most jaded conscience, which is what makes
them so great. I have had irate e-mails from friends who thought
they were going to be entertained when I suggested they see "Slumdog
Millionaire!" However, unlike so many docudramas and documentaries
that offer no hope or light at the end of the tunnel, the films
cited here are humorous and entertaining, with just enough melodrama
and "pizazz" to entice those that might normally steer
clear of serious documentaries with "messages."
Director Danny Boyle deserves
credit for devising a formula that mainstreams the subject matter
portrayed in "Slumdog Millionaire" which he does by
deploying the same steely control and absence of sentimentality
that he did in "Trainspotting," where he depicts the
hideous effect of strategically peddled heroin and other hard
drugs on young teenagers in a low income community in England.
It is an unforgettable film starring a very young Ewan McGregor
that is equally critical of predators of the children of the poor
in the affluent West. Child predators are a global phenomenon.
Boyle does not make easily
digestible films. He is clearly not in this to "make nice"
with moviegoers that want to sit back in cushioned seats and munch
popcorn. He usually takes a subject few of us would ever want
to confront and forces us confront it, if only to write a review,
or tell everyone to go see the film because we know it tells an
important story. I never thought a drug or a drug pusher could
be benign or harmless after seeing "Trainspotting."
At his best Boyle is an activist with a camera with an inspired
ability to direct difficult films. He does not waste his great
gift - he goes to war against complacency with it.
In "Slumdog Millionaire"
Boyle also grasps that incredible India is a subject in itself,
a land filled with bewildering contrasts, awesome beauty, numbing
poverty, and mouthwateringly luscious colors, which he utilizes
to the hilt in stunning cinematography in this film, from aerial
shots of teeming slums to close-ups of ornate villas, and over-crowded,
claustrophobic gullies rife with refuse, filth, vendors, dogs
and cows. The images are so powerful you can almost touch and
offers unsettling images of the fragility and resilience of youth
that remind us without resorting to gooey sentimentality that
for some children in the world there is no such luxury as childhood.
I grew up in India, I adore
the country and most of all the people, and to this day I am not
used to the sight of small children begging in the streets; I
never get used to them sticking their skinny arms in through the
car window, reciting some well rehearsed tale of woe, and I usually
chat with them when they chase after me and tug at my clothes
- and really annoy me - for money at stations and airports. They
have some hair-raising stories to tell about how they got to be
on the streets, some far worse than depicted in this film.
To see these marginalized and
often forgotten kids transported to the silver screen at my local
movie theatre complex in New York brought the injustice of their
plight home to me once again, there is no escaping it by changing
my location on the planet, but with a feeling of hope that their
circumstances might change, as some of the children's in the film
The film won four Golden Globes
at the 66th Annual Awards ceremony on January 11, 2009 for best
director, best motion picture (drama), best motion picture screenplay
and best motion picture musical score. That bodes well for the
continued excitement and Oscar buzz that has been circulating
around it since the film began showing in select cinemas across
It was a show of pride and
accomplishment that India's #1 Bollywood heart throb Shah Ruk
Khan addressed the star-studded throng at the Golden Globes beside
Freida Pinto, who plays Latika in "Slumdog Millionaire,"
remarking that she was understandably nervous. Mr. Khan draws
adoring audiences in the millions in India, and it is impossible
to turn on the TV there without seeing him dancing, singing or
advertising a product, while his fellow Indian actors Frieda Pinto
and Dev Patel are fresh out of the acting stable, barely twenty
years old, and already part of an ensemble cast winning Golden
Globes. Any young actor would be nervous.
Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman
presented Danny Boyle with the award for Best Director. It was
an emotional moment in an entertaining award ceremony, and A.
R. Rahman who won a Golden Globe for Best Original Score for "Slumdog
Millionaire" expressed what everyone involved in the making
of this film must have been thinking when he accepted his award
with a humble "This is amazing!"
It is an amazing achievement
for an absolute "outsider," low budget, independent
film, affectionately known to movie buffs as an "indie."
But it is entirely justified. Word is out there are celebrations
across India, a country famous for celebrations, and one can only
imagine what will happen there if this film wins an Oscar. I would
not want to miss that party.
certainly should garner an Oscar or two, but even if it does not,
it is a film much like "Born Into Brothels"- once seen
it will never be forgotten. It lodges in the heart, like a favorite
dog or a child's smile.
The heart is the often the
best place to start the long, arduous process of change, especially
if the goal is to overhaul harmful beliefs and behaviors, or get
children off dangerous streets away from thugs that cash in on
their vulnerability. Hopefully "Slumdog Millionaire"
will help achieve this through one of the most effective heart-stirring
mediums on the planet - film.
Since this review was posted
there is more good news. On January 22nd "Slumdog Millionaire"
received 10 Oscar Nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director,
Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, 2 Best Original
Songs, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing,
Best Sound Editing!
Not bad for an "indie"
film that nearly suffered a "straight-to-DVD" fate with
the collapse of many studio arthouse divisions. Warner Brothers
shut down its division, and the film floated in limbo till 20th
Century Fox's "Fox Searchlight" came to the rescue,
and distributed it. That was a good bet, even though it must have
seemed risky at the time....the film has now garnered an impressive
$45 millon in limited release, with a production budget of only
$14 million."Slumdog Millionaire" came in at #2 to the
top Oscar nominated film, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"
with 14 Oscar nominations, starring mega-heart throb Brad Pitt.
This may only be the beginning
for "Slumdog Millionaire!" Stay tuned....
More! On January 25th 2009,
"Slumdog Millionaire" won a SAG Award (Screen Actors
Guild Award) for Best Ensemble Cast.This is the highest award
that is decided by the votes of Members of The Screen Actors Guild
Union - actors. It is a coveted award by actors because it is
the highest award of their peers. Anil Kapoor spoke for the cast
when he said: "It is overwhelming to be nominated for a SAG
Award, let alone win. It is incredible, incredible." He added
that the award is dedicated to the children, because they made
One more to go!
What a night! In one of the
most glamorous presentations in recent memory "Slumdog Millionaire"
won 8 Oscars at the 81st Annual Academy Awards Ceremony in Hollywood,
including the most coveted award for Best Picture presented by
Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle for Best Director, Simon Beaufroy
for Best Adapted Screenplay, A.R. Rahman for Best Original Score
and Best Original Song "Jai Ho"(which he sang at the
awards ceremony), Chris Dickens for Best Film Editing, Anthony
Dod Mantle for Best Cinematography, and Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke,
Resul Pookutty for Best Sound Mixing.
2009 will be remembered as
the year the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood returned to old world
glamor with gorgeous crystal strewn sets, and exciting contemporary
actors and performers like Hugh Jackman and Beyoncé danced
and sang tunes from iconic Broadway and Hollywood musicals that
are beloved across the globe. The Oscars are always filled with
gorgeous gowns, but Frieda Pinto, Kate Winslet and Penelope Cruz
got my vote for elegance and glamour.
2009 will also be remembered
as the year "Slumdog Millionaire" cleaned up, winning
an astonishing 8 Oscars, when at one point it was a doomed "indie"
that could not find a distributor. Enter Fox Searchlight! This
is the stuff that dreams are made of. This is Hollywood and America,
where Barak Obama is now president, "Slumdog Millionaire"
triumphed on Oscar night, and anything is possible.
All the nominated films and
actors were extraordinary in their own way, but "Slumdog
Millionaire" won our hearts.
For more information or to
order the DVD visit the Internet Movie Data Base website at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1010048/ or Amazon.com
The film is distributed by
Fox Searchlight. Their web
site includes the Bollywood
influenced theme song that won a Golden Globe: