I can still remember the excitement in the TV industry when the Philbin-hosted American edition of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire debuted on ABC (i.e. way before they ran the show into the ground with a mind-numbing 4x-per-week airing schedule). Like many game shows, Millionaire was able to harvest some great drama out of a simple premise: A contestant answered questions of increasing difficulty with a chance at winning a million dollars if he got them all correct (while at any time still retaining the option to walk away with a sizable chunk of the money he’d already won). But unlike punishingly difficult quiz shows like Jeopardy or Twenty One, the questions usually didn’t center around obscure historical minutiae or nuclear physics; they were questions the viewers at home could answer too. As an audience, we were allowed to dream what we would do if we were sitting in that chair under those hot lights. We could imagine that, even with the limited knowledge and experience that we had, we always had the chance to strike gold. It’s no surprise, then, that Slumdog Millionaire is able use that game show to generate some engrossing drama of its own.
It’s the biggest night of Jamal Malik’s (Dev Patel) life. Against all odds, Jamal, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai, has correctly answered almost every single question on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Only one final question stands between him and the ultimate jackpot. But how did a poor kid with very little education ever make it this far? Jamal is quickly whisked away to a local police station for torturing and questioning, where accusations of cheating hang palpably in the air. To prove himself, Jamal must explain how he learned every single one of the answers, as well as all the insane (mis)fortunes of his life that have led him to this point. For me to reveal any more plot details than this would be to spoil the constant stream of surprises this movie will throw your way.
Some movies don’t just tell you a story; they create worlds that you’re allowed the privilege of inhabiting for a few fleeting hours before leaving the theater feeling exhilarated and more alive than when you went in. Slumdog Millionaire is one of those films. Director Danny Boyle’s career has taken him from the lives of British heroin addicts to the adventures of an international crew of Earth-saving astronauts. When I sat down with Boyle to talk about his favorite movies awhile back, I also asked him about how his filmography constantly moves from genre to genre. His response was as follows:
I have this theory that your first film is always your best film…because, although you obviously get better as a filmmaker technically, you learn more, you learn skills, and stuff like that. But you’re never quite in a place like that again, where you don’t know what you’re doing. If you can cope with the panic that that can cause amongst the crew, if you can deal with that and that doesn’t matter, it’s a wonderful place to be to tell stories, because you have no techniques that you’re gonna use. You just have the story, and you have to tell it as freshly as you can. I love that, and I think that everything I’ve tried to do after that is I’ve tried to get back to that situation of innocence. You can never quite be innocent again, you know? The cherry’s gone, but you can try and get back there by working in fields you’ve never worked in before.
In many ways, this real-life filmmaking notion of exploration and discovery is what Slumdog Millionaire is all about. The movie takes us through a journey of discovery, a non-stop thrill ride of rough-and-tumble street life in India. As Jamal and his brother learn about the harsh realities of victimization at the hands of poverty and gangs, we are there with them, experiencing the wonders and the horrors of the world they live in. The cinematography is stunningly gorgeous, a seamless blend of breathtaking establishing shots and you-are-there camera angles that convincingly make the film version of India into the living, breathing, world that it is in reality. And the A.R. Rahman-scored music (including the Bollywood-style dance number at the end) infuse the proceedings with an exoticism and an excitement that make the hopefully-inevitable soundtrack an irresistible purchase.
Despite all the dazzling filmmaking on display here, at its core, the movie is a love story between Jamal and his childhood friend, Latika (played by the lovely Freida Pinto). It is a love whose very existence seems almost implausible. But like all good fairy tales, it is the type of love that invokes the simplicity of the human condition, that speaks to our undying and irrational desire to be with that special someone, and that reflects on the tragedy of possibly losing them forever.
There are a few nits I could pick with some story, filmmaking, or acting elements, but I feel that for me to bring them up would almost cheapen my sentiments of what an amazing and must-see film this is. So I won’t.
Slumdog Millionaire is my favorite film of the year. It has been a tremendous year for movies, with critically acclaimed masterpieces and box office juggernauts all occupying spaces in the popular consciousness. Yet many of these works aren’t terribly uplifting. Films like Let The Right One In, The Wrestler, Quantum of Solace, and The Dark Knight, while great films in their own right (Solace excluded), all prominently feature brooding leads, depressing themes, and/or endings that make you question the state of humanity in the world. Slumdog Millionaire dares you to believe that, in a world ravaged by poverty and violence, the power of love and the audacity of hope can still hold sway. Cinematically, it proves that you can take tired clichés, such as love-at-first-sight and rags-to-riches, and make them fresh and thrilling. But perhaps even more significantly, it manages to make Who Wants To Be a Millionaire exciting again.
/Film Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Discuss: What did you think of Slumdog Millionaire? Was it a brilliant fairy tale? Or a cold, calculated piece of commercial fluff?
Slumdog Millionaire is currently in limited release. You can check out upcoming release dates by clicking here and you can read Peter Sciretta’s Telluride review of Slumdog Millionaire by clicking here. You can reach David Chen at davechensemailATgmail.com