This will be short and sweet: Slumdog Millionaire is one of the best films of the past, oh, 20 years? Give or take a few. And while I haven’t seen a handful of the biggest contenders for the Best Film Oscar, they will have to be better than good to beat out Slumdog — they will have to be great.
A kid from the slums of Bombay wins 10 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Given the prevailing caste mentality, this “slumdog” must have cheated, no? And so the truth of Jamal Malik’s life — the answers, as it were — are literally beaten out him, even as the nation sits enthralled by his unprecedented game-show run.
Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) dramatize exactly how Jamal came to know the answers to all those questions — namely by surviving a series of truly horrific episodes in a life that should have led nowhere but instead led him to the love of his life, a fellow orphan named Latika (Freida Pinto).
Slumdog brilliantly demonstrates the intersection of pop culture and misery. From the Hindu-on-Muslim pogrom that takes Jamal and brother Salim’s mother, to the grip of a Fagin-like figure who blinds orphan children, to the deal-with-the-devil that wins Jamal his freedom but separates him from his one true love — all roads lead to an inane TV game show in a newly revitalized, economically vibrant India, Jamal’s last best hope of being reunited with Latika.
The performances by the three actors who play Jamal at different ages are affecting without ever being cloying. Dev Patel (Skins) portrays Jamal at 18 with a world-weary demeanor that nevertheless remains winsome and inspiring. And Anil Kapoor as the slimy, insecure game-show host stands toe to toe with Richard Dawson’s turn as Damon Killian in The Running Man.
There’s some gruesome business in Slumdog, especially in relation to how brutally poor children fare in the lowest rungs of Indian society. But the film’s exhilarating conclusion is definitely earned and well worth the wait. A lot of films pretend to be about the power of love, but this one makes you believe that love believes all, hopes all, endures all, bears all. I mean, how many times will you have tears in your eyes as you hear a Muslim gangster proclaim “God is great” just as he’s about to blow somebody away?
If you don’t know where to start with the spate of late-year film releases, start with Slumdog Millionaire. It will buffer the many disappointments that no doubt await you.