Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review: Slumdog Millionaire

When I walked into the movie theater on Sunday afternoon to see Slumdog Millionaire, I was deliberately ignorant about the film. I knew it was being universally praised by film critics, and that it was raking in the awards. But I didn't want to be colored by those assessments - I wanted to see it fresh.

The trailers and brief reviews I'd allowed myself led me to believe I was walking into the "feel good" film of the year. So I was unprepared for the gritty and grim opening - a young man being tortured in a jail cell. I was apprehensive, but decided to be patient. Thankfully! The story began to unfold: a young man, raised in the slums of Mumbai, is a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." The host cannot understand how a barely literate "slumdog" has reached the highest level and is about to go for the 20 million rupee final prize. His torturers - who are actually policemen - want to know how he knew the answers. Jamal begins to tell his story: each question on the program has a key in his past, and we leap back through his childhood and adolescent as these touchstones are uncovered.

The film is incredibly well cast. Three sets of actors play Jamal, his brother Salim, and their friend (and love interest) Latika, at three stages of their lives. The youngest kids aren't precocious or stiff - they're natural and quite believable. (I understand they actually came from the slums of Mumbai, which is amazing). There is no one in the cast who the average American filmgoer will recognize (I've seen a few "Bollywood" films and still didn't see a familiar face). But this anonymity allows you to focus on the story, to really involve yourself in the lives of these young people.

And it IS a feel good film (I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying there's a happy ending). If you go, be sure to stay for the closing credits, which feature an incredibly infectious song (nominated for an Oscar) - I put it on my iPod last night, and would love to sing along - but I don't know Hindi!

I'm not sure it's THE best film of the year (I haven't seen Milk yet), but it is definitely in my top five. A lovely story, beautifully filmed and directed.

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