Sunday, February 8, 2015

Favorite Films: "Slumdog Millionaire"

The game show is called "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," and the title is a bit of a tease, because who doesn't want to be a millionaire?  If that's true anywhere in the world, it's even more true in India, where people live in squalid hantytowns that can't even be called slums, that word is too charitable.  Yet, they survive and they manage to laugh and dream.

One of the residents is a little boy named Jamal Malik, whose mother is murdered right before his eyes by rioting religious zealots.  As an orphan, his exploits would make Charles Dickens do a double-take.  Jamal comes to live a life filled with violence, misfortune, and unsavory men who enslave the bodies and souls of unfortunate children.  Amid this suffering, though, Jamal finds a chaste, pure love embodied by a little girl named Latika.

They meet in a rainstorm on the day that Jamal's mother has been killed.  His brother, Salim, wants him to turn Latika away, but even as a boy Jamal senses that this girl will play a role in his life.  It isn't long before they're separated again, but Jamal is determined that the world will not keep them apart.

So, the little irony is that when a grown up Jamal (played by Dev Patel) appears on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," he's doing it for one reason, and the reason isn't because he wants to be a millionaire.

Jamal has seen what money does to people.  It tears them apart, turns them vicious -- that's what happened to his brother, who works for one of the biggest gangsters in Mumbai and who tried to steal Latika away.  He got her body, but not her heart.  And Jamal knows that Latika (played by Freida Pinto when she's older) watches "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" every day.  "It's an escape into another life," she tells him during an all-too-brief reunion.

Jamil knows the answer to all the questions.  It's not necessarily that he's smart -- he's no more educated than a boy from the slums would be.  But every one of the questions seems to relate back to his unpredictable, unbelievable life, and Slumdog Millionaire darts back and forth in time as Jamil reflects back on his past to find the answers to innocuous trivia questions.

The movie covers a lot of ground, shows the vast sweep and scope of this seemingly little life.  Jamil may just be an office boy at a call center for a cell phone company, but one of the many beauties of Slumdog Millionaire is how it shows that no life is small, and every moment is, in its way, an adventure.

Director Danny Boyle has always made kinetic, sometimes hyperactive, movies.  They haven't always connected with me emotionally, but in Slumdog Millionaire he's aided by co-director Loveleen Tandan, an Indian woman whose name rightly should have been called alongside Boyle's when he deservedly won the Oscar in 2009 -- and when the film won Best Picture.  The movie works largely because of the ways it so effortlessly weaves Hindi dialogue alongside English, captures the pulsating spirit of the slums and makes them feel alive and vital, not depressing and pitiful.

Slumdog Millionaire is a movie that understands the strangeness of joy; it is, after all, the other side of despair, and while it's possible for deep sadness to exist without great happiness, Slumdog Millionaire knows elation must have its match in sorrow.  The two emotions together combine to create the ineffable magic that infuses the film: a sense of destiny.

The movie ends with scenes that have been parodied hundreds of times, but almost never captured effectively on film: Two lovers, kept apart for too long, finally see each other again and run to be reunited.  To do this right requires a perfect mix of finely balanced emotions that lead the viewer to tear up without crying, to be mesmerized without swooning, and, most of all, to smile without laughing.  Get it even the slightest bit wrong, and the audience will titter at the most inopportune moment, or the big emotion will dissipate.  It's almost impossible to pull off, so most films don't try.

Slumdog Millionaire doesn't just try -- it gets everything perfectly right, and winds up being the kind of film that can mend a broken heart, heal a deep wound, and calm an anxious soul.

Slumdog Millionaire doesn't want us to feel good just because a boy rises out of the slums and wins million dollars.  It wants us to feel good because he has shown that life can be magical and wonderful and beautiful.  Are there better reasons to fall in love with a movie the way I did when Slumdog Millionaire was first released seven years ago, and the way I do every time I watch it again?

If there are, don't tell me.  That's an answer I don't want to know.  Because Slumdog Millionaire is a movie I prefer to stay in love with, if only for the way it makes me smile.

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