Slumdog Millionaire: Is That Your Final Answer?

Do you believe in destiny? Do you think that all things that will happen to us are written in the stars or a religious prophecy? What if that prophecy says you’ll have something that so few people have, even if you won it all in a game show?

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is all about fate, and what happens when you mess with it. Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young man who grew up in sheer poverty, sits on the Indian version of the television show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. Every question has an answer that lies somewhere in Jamal’s past and he must search through his vicious memories to find it.

Slumdog Millionaire features an intense, multi-layered story with a deeply troubled (and many times flawed) main character, Jamal, and shows us all not to distrust fate, no matter how far-fetched the destiny is. That is, you have to believe in fate. And, Jamal must believe in himself.

I’ve heard nothing but ultimate praise for this movie, the 81st winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2008, but I’ve never gotten around to seeing it. I try to walk into a movie with an open mind, but I was blown away. Slumdog Millionaire is an instant classic. It’s tragically beautiful, unspeakably violent, heartbreaking, and amazingly triumphant all at the same time. When it was done, I was gasping for air and there were tears running down my cheeks, not because of sadness, but because the resolution was so cathartic and so perfect that I couldn’t help but to be moved.

In short, Slumdog Millionaire set an unbelievable standard for the next movies on my list. I almost feel sorry for Terms of Endearment. While the movie was not perfect, no movie is, I am a better person for having watched it.

Now for the review:

Plot

From the beginning of Slumdog Millionaire, you’re violently introduced to Jamal Malik who stands accused of cheating on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?  As he’s tortured and interrogated by the police, his story unfolds. The police don’t believe him when he says he knew the answers. Each question led us to part of his past and it showed us his intensely personal and horrifying life. Along the way, we see the death of his mother, his exploitation by a crime lord, his deteriorating relationship with his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and, most importantly, his budding romance with Latika (Freida Pinto).

Jamal was immediately sympathetic to me and if he’s not to you when you watch it, then you will be by the time it’s done. Throughout the course of his life, he’s subjected to poverty of the worst kind, living in literal landfills to survive and resorting to petty crimes. His life has not been a picnic.

This movie makes no bones about any of its content. It’s in your face from the get-go and doesn’t ever slow down. It’s not fast-paced, per se, but it always kept me on the edge of my seat. In short, Slumdog Millionaire’s narrative is incredibly original, engaging and innovative. It, in my mind, is not even the most powerful part of the movie.

Greed, romance, heartbreak, terror, frustration and pure joy were all themes of this movie. I’ve never experienced anything like Jamal has and I don’t think anyone should. But there are people living that kind of life, unfortunately. Because of this narrative’s incredibly innovative process, this movie felt extremely personal. There’s more than a billion people in India, yet, Danny Boyle picked out three of them and told an amazing story about their lives. 1.

Writing/Dialogue

Simon Beaufoy wrote the screenplay for Slumdog Millionaire and he based it off the novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup. The screenplay earned the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. While I’ve touched on much of the plot above, what helps make this movie go is its unique dialogue. Or, it’s unique to me, at least.

The most interesting component of the script is that it features a mix of English and Hindi. Hinglish, I suppose. It’s similar to Spanglish. Inserting Hindi words in an English sentence takes some serious talent and research to pull off. Also, there are many different nationalities involved in this movie (mostly tourists), German and American in particular. The script must account for their vernacular, too, which it does very well. 1.

Sound

Slumdog Millionaire’s score was composed by A. R. Rahman and he won an Oscar for Best Original Score for this work. I thought the score would be very traditionally Indian. Again, I was blown away. It has both traditional and electronic elements. Rahman’s score is very contemporary, heavy on percussion (which is a personal favorite of mine) and it features artists like M.I.A. It’s both in-your-face (like the plot) and somber with an uplifting hint of hope.

One peculiar feature of this score, and a unique topic in this blog, is that Rahman, along with Gulzar, also won an Oscar for Best Original Song with Jai Ho, which plays at the end of the film. When it’s time for Jai Ho in this movie, it has a very different tone than the rest of the movie. As a whole, Slumdog Millionaire is a very serious movie, yet Jai Ho is an upbeat dance number featuring the cast. It’s out of place, yet somehow still fits.

The song is accompanied by an all cast dance, of course. This is definitely a tribute to Bollywood, or India’s version of Hollywood, which is famous for song and dance numbers in movies. If you’re looking for more Bollywood, watch this music video. It’s seriously my new favorite. If you follow just one link in this blog, let it be this video. That choreography will leave you wondering how you made it this far in life without watching this video.

Slumdog Millionaire’s sound team of Resul Pookutty, Richard Pryke and Ian Tapp also picked up an Oscar for Best Sound Editing. 1.

Set Design

I’ve mentioned that Slumdog Millionaire shows unbelievable poverty and it’s true. The most striking part of this movie is the filth and squalor that the people in the slums must endure, from having no running water to no functioning sewer and everything in between

A good portion of the movie was shot in the slums in Mumbai. This lends credibility and authenticity to the story. And when I say there’s trash everywhere, there’s trash everywhere. It amazes me that people can live like that.

But it’s not just slums. This movie features all classes of socio-economic status and the set has to reflect that. The movie takes you from slums to mansions and everywhere in between.

For the clothing, Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t do anything special. It’s a mix of traditional Indian attire as well as things you might find in your closet, such as jeans and T-shirts. 1.

Cinematography

In my mind, Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography was the outstanding feature of this movie. The Academy agreed, giving him the Oscar for Best Cinematography. It’s just as innovative as the plot is.

Going all the way back to Around the World in 80 Days, the cinematography for each film has been simple yet effective. That’s not to say that there haven’t been beautiful shots, though. But, with Slumdog Millionaire, we get back to more of an “artsy” feel in the camera work. The shots are primarily on tripods or on the shoulder. The latter are obviously meant to portray chaos, and they do, for sure, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

This movie is intensely personal and, just as the narrative is in our faces, the camera is in the actors’ faces, too. There are A LOT of very close shots in this movie. The normal way to do this is to have the actor stand in a frame with a static camera. Not in Slumdog Millionaire, though. The best ones are when the camera is on the shoulder and focused on a character’s face. This gives us the sensation that the character’s mind is running at a thousand miles per hour, running through thoughts like they’re going out of style.

Another innovation in this movie is the camera angles. This is pulled off from both the on-shoulder and on-tripod techniques. Primarily during flashbacks, there are many, many shots that come from odd angles such as near the ground or ones that are crooked. This, to me, demonstrated the warped sense of life that Jamal experiences. This describes his life to the audience more so than Jamal himself. His life is his life. He didn’t choose it and it’s very possible that it’s not warped to him. But, us as the audience watched all movies with heavy layers of bias about our own lives. The odd camera angles are meant to show that his life is different from ours and that it is disconnected from the way that we live.

This effect is also beautiful. 1.

Acting

Slumdog Millionaire is the eleventh film to win Best Picture without a single acting nomination. That, however, doesn’t mean there aren’t great performances. Since Slumdog Millionaire focuses on Jamal and his story, that’s who I’ll focus on here.

Dev Patel (Jamal Malik) This movie uses a few actors to play Jamal as he goes through his life. Patel plays the oldest version of Jamal and he does it fabulously.

Everything in Jamal’s life up to the game show has been all about surviving. From living in landfills to having Latika consistently just out of his reach. He’s been beaten, tortured, brutalized and threatened. He’s seen horrors that NOBODY should ever experience. Yet, he presses onward in the face of hopelessness and maintains faith that he’ll get to hold the love of his life.

Patel’s performance was somber and emotional; he was invested in his character and I was too. I felt his pain and celebrated his joy. Jamal is supremely persistent and believes that, unlike many others in this movie, there’s more to life than playing down to the hand you were dealt. He wants more and is willing to go for it. 1.

Directing

Danny Boyle directed Slumdog Millionaire and it won him an Oscar for Best Director, beating out both David Fincher and Ron Howard. I loved everything about Slumdog Millionaire and that includes Boyle’s direction. There’s no shortage of brilliant and innovative filmmaking techniques, many of which I’ve touched on in this blog.

A director that makes me cry by the end of a movie is good, but one that can do it to me twice within a week is great. Slumdog Millionaire is an incredibly complex and layered tale that touches on everything from economics to television entertainment to love and everything in between. Boyle holds nothing back in showcasing his masterpiece. The brutality of the movie combined with his extraordinary personal storytelling ability was a spellbinding experience. I’ve moved Slumdog Millionaire into a category all its own and it’s one of my favorite movies ever.

Or, as Daniel Day-Lewis’s character of Daniel Plainview said in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, “That was one goddamned hell of a show.” 1.

Bonus Points

To say that this movie was easily worth more than 10 points is an understatement. However, I cannot give it more than 10 as that cheapens my opinions about how I feel about those movies I’ve reviewed previously and those to come. However, I can’t pick which categories to put my three extra points in, so I’m just going to give them to the movie as a whole.

Final score: 10/10

Oscar Facts

Slumdog Millionaire won the 81st Academy Award for Best Picture on February 22, 2009 at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles. The movie beat out The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk and The Reader for the award. The award was presented by director Stephen Spielberg and was accepted by producer Christian Colson. In all, Slumdog Millionaire was nominated ten times and won eight awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.

Other notable winners that night included the Best Actor Oscar going to Sean Penn for the second time, this time from his work in Milk. Kate Winslet won Best Actress for her work in The Reader. Heath Ledger became the second actor to win a posthumous acting Oscar for his role in The Dark Knight. Penélope Cruz won Best Supporting Actress from her work in Vicky Christian Barcelona. The ceremony was hosted by Hugh Jackman. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button received the most nominations with 13.

Next Week

In the next edition, it’s a special Christmas review of James L. Brooks’ Terms of Endearment, the 56th Best Picture winner. After that, it’s Titanic, a pair of Frank Capra winners in It Happened One Night and You Can’t Take it With You, The Deer Hunter and No Country for Old Men.

10 Comments

  1. I loved this movie too, so glad you loved it! Great review, I really want to watch it again soon. Thanks for reminding me of all the great things about this movie!

    Liked by 1 person

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