I'd heard much about Slumdog Millionaire, but all of it praise; I didn't actually know anything about the film itself. From its title, I assumed it to be a violent tale of gangs and turf wars. I couldn't've been more wrong — or more pleasantly surprised!
In the spirit of The Usual Suspects, the film begins near the end, with the main character being interrogated by the police as to how he got where he is. It seems Jamal, an uneducated 18-year-old from the slums of Mumbai, has made it further in the Indian version of the game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? than anyone ever has. Therefore, he must be cheating. But through a series of flashbacks, the police and the audience learn that each question he was asked on the show coincidentally corresponded with a chronological event in his short life. Through these vignettes, we discover the hardship he has endured and the loved ones he has lost and found.
The first half of the film can be distressing, only because it reflects the reality of life in a slum — or, more accurately, life in India. Most people (including me) don't comprehend how impoverished that country is compared to America. We associate India with little more than call centers and customer support, and though the film does offer us a glimpse of that, the reality is far starker and needs no exaggeration for Hollywood. One Columbia University student recently spent a semester abroad and made these observations:
While I lived perfectly comfortably, and in no ways was I even close to being among the poorest of India, I saw the poverty and the filth from the very moment I woke up (the maid who swept my room and washed my clothes arriving before sunup only to leave by 8am to get to her ‘real job’ then to return at 6pm to do night duties) to the moment I went to bed (the starving puppies that run wild even in the nicest of neighborhoods and never sleep at night, whining all night). And it was there in every moment in between: no trash cans in the whole country, people throwing every piece of waste and garbage out the train windows day and night …
For Slumdog's Jamal to have remained within this environment without succumbing to it makes him a true hero. I don't speak of his becoming a doctor or lawyer or scientist; the story doesn't extend that far. I speak more of his dedication to people and values over his own self-gain; that, despite few people watching out for him, he consistently chooses to watch out for others. In that respect, the story may be predictable, but by giving it an unfamiliar setting, it becomes new again.
It's also unbelievable, in that a slumdog would become a millionaire (obviously, the local authorities agree). But this artistic license underscores that even the smallest, most trivial detail of our lives can ultimately prove significant. A long-dormant memory might bubble up at just the right moment, or a missed train might lead to a new adventure. A man can have an Apple II and a woman multiple sclerosis so that three decades later their son will fly 1500 miles and accidentally find what he'd always been looking for. We often overlook these details, yet that is often where life is found. Slumdog Millionaire manifests that truth in a uniquely Hollywood fashion.
Just as Firefly was interspersed with Chinese, Slumdog Millionare liberally alternates between English and Hindi. When understanding Hindi is essential to the plot, subtitles appear not under the frame, but within it — an unusual style that makes the words appear to be coming from the actors' mouths, except when the text illegibly blends into the background. However, like Firefly, there are no subtitles when the foreign text is throwaway, and I was often left wondering if what I'd just heard was Hindi, or if my hearing had failed to understand English dialogue. As a result, I watched most of the movie with the subtitles on (which may be useful if you have trouble with accents anyway).
I enjoyed this film but am surprised it won nine Academy Awards. Would the same story set in the streets of New York have done as well? Or would that not even have been the same story? Regardless, I recommend Slumdog Millionaire, not as "the feel-good film of the decade" as some would portray it, but for the fascinating — and, at times, heartbreaking — tale of growing up with nothing, yet still having everything to lose.