Slumdog Millionaire

Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, screenplay by Simon Beaufoy based on "Q & A," a novel by Vikas Swarup, with Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Saurabh Shukla, Rajendranath Zutshi, Jeneva Talwar, Freida Pinto, Irrfan Khan, Asharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Ayush Mahesh Kledekar, 120 minutes, color, 2008

At the dazzling 81st Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood on February 22, 2009 "Slumdog Millionaire" won 8 Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound Mixing


Photo courtesy imdb.com

By Michele Leight

"Slumdog Millionaire" 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 misfortune.

Ayush Mahesh Khedekar

Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, who plays youngest Jamal. Photo courtesy imdb.com

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.

Dev Patel and Prem Kumar

Dev Patel, who plays adult Jamal Malik , left, is quizzed by Anil Kapoor, who plays the talk show host Prem Kumar, right. Image courtesy www.imdb.com

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 of life.

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 it.

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.

"Slumdog Millionaire" 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 smell them.

"Slumdog Millionaire's" 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 did.

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 America.

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.

Freida Pinto

Freida Pinto, who plays Latika in "Slumdog Millionaire." Photo courtesy imdb.com

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.

"Slumdog Millionaire" 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. Wow!

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 it happen.

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 at http://www.amazon.com/Slumdog-Millionaire-Theatrical-Release/dp/B001KVZ6BG/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&s=dvd&qid=1232076816&sr=8-11

The film is distributed by Fox Searchlight. Their web site includes the Bollywood influenced theme song that won a Golden Globe:


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