Slumdog Millionaire is the first great film of the new “flat world.” “Jamal” (Dev Patel), the hero of Slumdog Millionaire, is a Mumbai teenager who becomes a contestant on the Indian version of the TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The plot is as simple as can be: every time Millionaire’s host asks a new question, Jamal has a flashback. Each flashback leads Jamal to an answer and gives us another chapter of his life story.
Slumdog Millionaire rests on the shoulders of the nine young actors who play Jamal and his two fellow “musketeers” at various ages, and co-directors Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan do a dazzling job of completely individuating them through a complicated series of often heart-breaking adventures. Stay for the credits—they’re the icing on the cake. Bravo!
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Slumdog Millionaire is the first great film of the new “flat world.” Using state-of-the-art tools and techniques from “the first world,” Slumdog Millionaire tells a “third world” story that respects the difficult lives of its characters while still providing audiences everywhere with a credibly upbeat ending.
“Jamal” (Dev Patel), the hero of Slumdog Millionaire, is a teenager who serves tea in a Mumbai call center. Jamal has a dream; he wants to be a contestant on the Indian version of the TV game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire—and his dream comes true. Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? No. Reality shows are immensely popular all around the world, and they depend on the emotional investment of audiences who want to watch people like themselves literally transformed into televised “players.”
The plot is as simple as can be: every time Millionaire’s host “Prem” (Anil Kapoor) asks a new question, Jamal has a flashback. Each flashback gives Jamal clues while simultaneously providing the film’s audience with another chapter of his life story. I’m not giving anything away here. Suffice it to say that the movie would be pretty short if Jamal didn’t have an uncanny ability to keep playing.
So, for example, one question is: “What face appears on an American hundred dollar bill?” Prem is certain that no chai wallah can possibly know the answer to this question, so when Jamal says “Benjamin Franklin,” Prem is astonished. Of course, as soon as Prem responds (“You’re right!”), we’re bombarded with flashing lights and jazzy sound effects, but this is a triumphant cinematic moment because Jamal’s ability to draw strength from his piteous circumstances gives us all hope. Members of the onscreen audience rejoice simply because Jamal knows the answer, and knowing the answer allows him to keep playing for ever higher stakes. But members of the film audience are even more exhilarated because we see why he knows, and that makes us the real beneficiaries of Jamal’s success.
Slumdog Millionaire rests on the shoulders of nine young actors, none of whom came to this project with significant screen experience.
Jamal: Ayush Mahesh Khedekar plays Jamal as a kid, Tanay Hemant Chheda plays Jamal as an adolescent, and Dev Patel plays Jamal as a teenager.
Salim: Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail plays Jamal’s brother “Salim” as a kid, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala plays Salim as an adolescent, and Madhur Mittal plays Salim as a teenager.
Latika: “Latika” is an orphan girl who becomes the love of Jamal’s life. Rubina Ali plays Latika as a kid, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar plays Latika as an adolescent, and Freida Pinto plays Latika as a teenager.
These nine youngsters completely individuate themselves—we always know which one is which in every scene. From the very start, Jamal is resourceful, Salim is pugnacious, and Latika is resilient. Just watching them meet the challenges of life in modern India as they grow would be thrilling in and of itself, even without the game show hook. But starting the film with teenage Jamal (Dev Patel) facing off against Prem has one great narrative advantage: even though the odds against them seem almost insurmountable, we already know these kids are going to survive. If we didn’t know this from the start, would we still let ourselves go where these filmmakers take us? Be warned: some portions of their journey will totally break your heart.
Three adult actors serve as narrative anchors. Bollywood star Anil Kapoor gives Prem a sinister glamour, Irrfan Khan (best known to first-world audiences as Gogol’s father, “Ashoke Ganguli,” in The Namesake) warms up the otherwise thankless role of a police inspector called in when Prem accuses Jamal of cheating, and Ankur Vikal plays “Maman,” the Fagin equivalent in the horrific Oliver Twist-type scenes. But the nine youngsters are the heart and soul of this film, and if any one of them had stumbled, then Slumdog Millionaire would never have become so much greater than the sum of its parts. Kudos to the filmmakers and their total command of the arts & sciences of cinema!
© Jan Lisa Huttner (11/20/08) for the Fund for Women Artists: www.WomenArts.org Jan Lisa Huttner