Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire

A rather cold afternoon in January is a good time to rediscover the joys of cinema – and my goodness – what a film – deserving every possible acclamation.

Film National Board Awards

So here is the plot!!!

Slumdog Millionaire opens with a police inspector  in Mumbai,  India interrogating and torturing Jamal Malik, also played by Tanay Chheda and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar), a former street child. Jamal is a contestant on the game show, Kaun Banega Crorepati the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), hosted by Prem Kumar . Jamal has made it to the final question, but the police are now accusing him of cheating.

Jamal then begins to offer an explanation of how he knew the answers which is conveyed as a series of flashbacks documenting the particulars of his childhood. This includes scenes of him obtaining the autograph of Bollywood superstar ; the death of his mother during Hindu-Muslim riot  in the slums; and how he and his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) befriended the orphan girl, Latika .As Jamal’s favorite book from his short period in school was The Three Musketeers  he refers to Salim and himself as Athos and Porthos,  and Latika as the third Musketeer.

The children are eventually discovered by Maman (Ankur Vikal) while they live in the trash heaps. Maman is a gangster (a fact they do not know at the time they meet him) who “collects” street children so that he can ultimately train them to beg for money. Salim is groomed to become a part of Maman’s operation and is asked to bring Jamal to Maman in order to be blinded (which would improve his income potential as a singing beggar). Salim rebels against Maman to protect his brother, and the three children try to escape, but only Salim and Jamal are successful. Latika is re-captured by Maman’s organization and raised as a culturally talented prostitute whose virginity will fetch a high price.

The brothers eke out a living, traveling on top of trains, selling goods, pretending to be tour guides at the  Taj Mahal, and pickpocketing. Jamal eventually insists that they return to Mumbai since he wishes to locate Latika. When he finds her working as a dancer in a brothel, the brothers attempt to rescue her, but Maman intrudes, and in the resulting conflict Salim draws a gun and kills Maman. Salim then uses the fact that he killed Maman to obtain a job with Javed , a rival crime lord. Salim claims Latika as his own, and when Jamal protests, Salim threatens to kill him and Latika intervenes, accepting her fate with Salim.

Years later, Jamal has a position as a  chai – wallah, (a boy or young man who serves tea) at a  call centre. When he is asked to cover for a co-worker for a couple of minutes, he searches the database for Salim and Latika. He gets in touch with Salim, who has become a high-ranking lieutenant in Javed’s organization. Salim invites Jamal to live with him and, after following Salim to Javed’s house, he sees Latika living there. He talks his way in as the new dishwasher and tries to convince Latika to leave. She rebuffs his advances, but he promises to be at the  railway station every day at 5pm. One day Latika attempts to rendezvous with him, but is recaptured by Salim and Javed’s men, one of whom slashes her cheek with a knife, scarring her.

Jamal again loses contact with Latika when Javed moves to another home. In another attempt to find Latika, Jamal tries out for the game show because he knows that she will be watching. He makes it to the final question, despite the hostile attitude of the host who feeds Jamal an incorrect answer during a break. At the end of the episode’s taping, Jamal has one question left to win 20 million,  rupees  and is taken into police custody, where he is tortured as the police attempt to learn how Jamal, a simple slumdog, could know the answers to so many questions. After Jamal tells his whole story, explaining how his life experiences coincidentally enabled him to know the answer to each question, the police inspector calls his explanation “bizarrely plausible” and allows Jamal to return to the show for the final question. At Javed’s safehouse, Latika watches the news coverage of Jamal’s miraculous run on the show. Salim gives Latika the keys to his car and his phone and urges her to run away. When Jamal uses his  Phone a Friend  lifeline to call Salim, Latika answers his phone and they reconnect. She does not know the answer to the final question either, but believing that “it is written”, Jamal guesses the correct answer (Aramis) to the question of the one  Musketeer whose name they never learned, and wins the grand prize. Simultaneously, Salim is discovered to have helped Latika escape and allows himself to be killed in a bathtub full of money after shooting and killing Javed. Salim’s last words are “God is great”, which is a Muslim prayer. Later that night, Jamal and Latika meet at the train station, and finally share a kiss. The closing credits then imitate a  Bollywood-style musical number.

And the best part is the happy ending!!

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Despite the wobbly structure, Slumdog is a far more sophisticated film than the plot suggests. There isn’t an inch of Merchant Ivory on view. And, like the best parables, Slumdog doesn’t simply plunder India’s troubled past and a boy’s bitter-sweet memories in order to look forward.

What’s great about the film is that it looks sideways as the past and future grind past each other like tectonic plates. It’s the kind of dynamic  that is powerful and transforming for the viewer. The colour, the brutality and the sheer power of the capitalist ideal are extraordinary.

Mumbai’s brand new skyscrapers sprout out of patches of mud; Jamal’s old-fashioned principles will forever be out of synch with the slick, nightclub world that his older brother Salim inhabits. And so it goes. The romance? Fear not. It’s fabulous icing.

I demand you go and see it!!

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