Sunday, April 05, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Grade C

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal; Co-directors Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan. (In English and Hindi subtitled).

A young man in Mumbai (Patel) wins the grand prize on the Indian TV show, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. As he approaches winning the jackpot he is interrogated and tortured by police because, as a beggar from the slums (a slumdog), they assume he must be cheating. During the the interrogation he describes his impoverished life with his brother (Mittal), and a childhood playmate (Pinto). That life is shown in long flashbacks intercut with the quiz show and the interrogation. Improbably, the questions asked on the quiz show just happen to be on topics of which he has some personal experience from his chaotic life. That is not believable, but as a storytelling device it gives the narrative the tone of a fairy tale and removes us from immediate engagement. The young man’s brother goes to work for a gangster and the slumdog gets various jobs in Mumbai as he searches for the young girlfriend he now longs for.

This movie won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2008. Everyone loves a melodrama, I guess, especially if it involves poor children who make good and if love conquers all. Heavy-handed sentimentality does not have universal appeal however. I prefer a story that tells us what people are made of, or at least one that engages the intellect. These characters do neither. Much as been made of the great acting by the children and young adults here, but it is only “great” because they are not trained actors. If you take the acting at face value, it is adequate at best. The story is boring, repetitive, contrived, and too long (two hour running time). The characters show little emotion and they behave opportunistically, rather than from complex motives. The themes of the movie are trite (poverty is awful; rags to riches; love conquers all). On the mix of Bollywood vs Hollywood, I’d say it was 60/40.

On the plus side, it is an authentic-looking portrait of some aspects of India on the low end, beautifully photographed. Mumbai is almost unrecognizable since I was there. The music is contemporary Indian, quite interesting. Scenery, sets, and costumes are excellent. It’s not a bad-looking movie; just not very interesting.

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