Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Oh, to be a Slumdog Millionaire

There are some films one doesn't expect to walk away from the Academy Awards with an armload of Oscars. Such is certainly the case for Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, which has just hit Blu-ray and DVD. Stickers added to the cases after production may indicate the movie's success with the Academy, but nothing on the Blu-ray's actual printed cover (at least the ones sent out to reviewers) indicates that it won eight Oscars, though a Golden Globe for Boyle is mentioned on the back. Ironically, the film itself is about an underdog going all the way.

Starring Dev Patel as Jamil Malik, the film follows a young man in Mumbai whom no one thought had a chance at anything. Malik, however, has managed to make it onto the Indian version of Who Wants to a Millionaire, where he actually knows the answers to all the questions.

The film itself is told as a series of flashbacks, opening with Malik being tortured in a police station after his first night on Millionaire. Everyone involved thinks Jamal has cheated to get as far as he has – one question away from the big prize. He is questioned throughout the night by a police inspector (Irrfan Khan), who takes Jamal through the questions he was asked on the show and learns all about Jamal's life story and how Jamal knows the answers to some impossibly difficult questions.

The inspector – and the audience – learn all about Jamal's growing up in the slums of Mumbai with nothing; Jamal's sometimes rocky relationship with his brother, Salim (as an adult portrayed by Madhur Mittal); and Jamal's pursuit of the love of his life, Latika (as an adult portrayed by Freida Pinto). Though depicted as a harsh and gripping reality butting heads with the possibility of salvation and fantastic wealth, the film is, quite clearly, a fantasy. It is a good fantasy, one that completely envelops the audience and has them rooting for Jamal and Latika throughout, but upon finishing it one can't help but get the sense that this fantastic fairytale is in fact nothing more than that.

As Jamal is questioned in the police station about knowing the answers, the audience is taken through his life in an almost perfectly linear fashion. Amazingly, the questions Jamal does know the answer to, starting with question number one on the show, take Jamal from his childhood straight through to his present life without jumping around in time. He doesn't go from being five when he learned the answer to the first question to being 18 for the third and then back to nine for the fifth question, no, he grows as the questions continue. It is certainly a device that makes it easier to tell Jamal's story, but it also makes the entire story less believable.

The film tries to get away with this by suggesting that Jamal's getting these questions and reaching the last one on the show happened because "it is written." However, in a life and a world where Jamal makes his own way, to suggest divine intervention to have him win money is a difficult concept to swallow. It may have been harder for Simon Beaufoy – who won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay here – to write a tale that would hold together jumping around more in time, but it would have added something of value as well.

While Slumdog Millionaire tells a great a story, and is most certainly a wonderful and wonderfully engrossing film, it is clearly just that, a film. But, what's more, no matter how much it depicts Indians, it is a film made by and for westerners.

To hear Beaufoy and Boyle discuss the making of the film in some of the extras included on the DVD makes one occasionally cringe. While the two clearly have a certain amount of reverence for India and Indians, they from time to time toss off statements that sound condescending and/or offensive (depending on one's point of view). I do not for a single minute believe that their intent was anything less than honorable and honorific, but it doesn't always come out that way.

Beyond that, there are several other instances in the film that exist solely for western audiences. The fantastic and incredibly memorable scene in which young Jamal jumps into feces in order to get out of an outhouse so that he can get Amitabh Bachchan's signature stands out as one of them. The first question Jamal gets on the show is who starred in the 1973 film Zanjeer. As Jamal eventually points out to the inspector, everyone in India knows Amitabh Bachchan, but it takes an awful long time to get there, to explain the reverence for Bachchan (arguably the biggest star in Bollywood to this very day). And, more importantly, the film makes no acknowledgment that it was Bachchan who hosted Who Wants to be a Millionaire when it first came to India. Surely Jamal would have mentioned that in his discussions with the police. Omissions like these, and other oddities in the film, like showing something that looks far more like bhel poori on screen when pani poori is discussed, only further serve to hurt the film's authenticity. Again, do not mistake what I'm trying to say – the film is a wonderful fairytale and a great love story; there are, however, moments of concern.

On Blu-ray, Slumdog Millionaire it looks and sounds utterly spectacular. After seeing it in the theater and then at home, I think the quality of the video and audio is better on the Blu-ray than what I saw on the big screen. The colors and sights and sounds of India come across brilliantly. Some of the shots at the Millionaire game show did appear slightly more grainy than I would have expected, but that issue is a minor one. A.R. Rahman's Oscar-winning music is pumped out of the speakers loud, clear, full of bass, and really helps center the audience in the story.

The release is loaded with special features including deleted scenes, music videos, an audio commentary with Boyle and Patel, the usual assortment of "making of" documentaries, and a short film called Manjha (the less said of which, the better). However, the way the disc is organized, only one special feature title is shown in the menu at a time, forcing the viewer to keep scrolling while never being quite sure of what they're going to see next (and then getting awfully confused when the reach the end of the list and it starts from the beginning again with no warning). There is also, as I always enjoy seeing, a digital copy of the film provided on a second disc.

In the final summation, Slumdog Millionaire's story, like its main character, triumphs over all its shortcomings and pitfalls. It is however, far from perfect and perhaps not always as authentic as it should be. The film's ending (like the final question Jamal will eventually get) is obvious from the first 10 or 15 minutes of the film, but the fact that it keeps the audience entranced throughout anyway is a testament to the job Boyle, Beaufoy, and everyone else involved accomplished.

1 comment:

Rebeca said...

Slumdog Millionaire .. ohh my favorite movie, I have seen thrice.