Lowdown: The story of a teenager from Mumbai’s slums who doesn’t want to be a millionaire.
When asked, I gladly express my opinion on the Academy Awards, most notably about the less than robust correlation between quality and award winning. That said, the Oscars do seem to have some effect on me, because when facing the choice of renting either Slumdog Millionaire or The Day the Earth Stood Still I chose the former; it was a conservative’s choice. I do have to hand it in to Slumdog Millionaire, though: it was a choice we really enjoyed, for Slumdog is a good take on the feel good / uplifting formula represented by films such as The Shawshank Redemption or the previously reviewed World’s Fastest Indian and The Astronaut Farmer.
As the film starts, we are introduced to Jamal, a Muslim teenager from Mumbai’s slums. Jamal has just won millions on the Indian version of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire TV show, but enough people believe he could not have achieved such an achievement without cheating. As a result of this doubt Jamal is not out there celebrating his victory, but rather being tortured at a Mumbai police station for information on his scheme. Only that, according to Jamal, he did not cheat; and after the police finish giving him their worst without any outcomes, they sit and listen to his story on how he happened to know the answers to the million dollars questions.
And just like Darwin’s simple idea for explaining complexity using lots and lots of simple mindless events, Slumdog Millionaire develops simply through Jamal giving the police his life stories, flashback style. One by one, these stories explain how he was able to answer the questions while we end up with the resulting pile of flashbacks that make the film up.
Conveniently enough for the film, the questions/answers flashback happen to follow Jamal through his life, from a small child to the teenager he currently is. Sure, it feels contrived, but who cares when it’s so easy to drown in the plot? The resulting tapestry of stories exposes us to the magnificently strange world of India. We learn about life in the slums under conditions of extreme poverty, we learn about religious tensions in Indian society, and we learn a thing or two about the Indian class system. We even learn a bit on how the Indian call centers work. In short, Slumdog Millionaire works by taking most of us to the world of fantasy that is India.
Another process that happens as we go through Jamal’s account is that we learn more about Jamal, the person. He’s no longer an unlikely TV game show winner; he’s a person. He is someone who grew out of an environment of poverty, crime and exploitation. He is someone who doesn’t give up when he wants something. And he is someone whose current quest is to find a girl he and his older brother grew up with in the slums, a girl he is now in love with. It is the love for this girl that brought him to the TV show, not greed. Through Jamal’s idealism and the contrast between it and his brother’s more practical approach to life under harsh conditions we have ourselves an uplifting story of fascinating circumstances about an unlikely hero rising up to the occasion despite very unfavorable circumstances. It’s really easy to find yourself identifying with Jamal; even the process of going through the Millionaire questions with him brings you closer to him, simply because you feel you’re being quizzed yourself. Things are, literally, very exciting.
There are some issues with Slumdog, though. As I have already mentioned, it does feel contrived and there are too many coincidences. For a start, our hero doesn’t know much, so the likelihood of him getting the few questions he does know the answer for is pretty low. Things are made worse by the film’s way of addressing this problem: it basically says that this is the way things were meant to be. Problem is, I cannot accept such a solution, and the formerly mentioned Darwin is on my side of the debate here: he did not accept such an answer as a good explanation either.
Memorable scene: As a young child, Jamal is locked in an outdoor toilet by his brother just when his most beloved Bollywood childhood hero is coming to pay their slum a visit. Jamal would stop at nothing, so he jumps into the pile of shit underneath the toilet to get out and secures the Bollywood star’s signature. It’s very exciting and all, but as I already said – it’s also very contrived: It’s not only that Jamal was willing to swim in shit and it’s not only that he managed to get a signature; he managed both. Reality doesn’t work this way.
Picture quality: Slumdog features a very high contrast image that’s flashy and sexy to the eye. On the negative side, the picture is often grainy, which is quite surprising for the Blu-ray format. Apparently, Slumdog was shot in digital, which sort of explains my observations (and makes it seem as if digital is not there yet for filming purposes).
Sound quality: Slumdog knows how to be aggressive when it wants to, resulting in a pleasing sound experience that makes the most of its settings. Quite nice, especially when considering that Slumdog is not a mega blockbuster action flick.
Overall: Slumdog is a good film, but if Slumdog went on to earn the Academy Award then Shawshank should have won a few years’ worth of Academy Awards. For now, though, I’ll rate Slumdog somewhere between 4 and 4.5 stars out of 5; it earns this rating mainly because of its India factor.