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After finally seeing the 2008 Academy Award winning Best Picture, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE”, I am beginning to suspect that this film had garnered a great deal of unnecessarily extreme reactions. Moviegoers either loved it with every fiber of their being or considered it as either vastly overrated or insulting to the citizens of India. My reaction to the movie has been neither.

Directed by Danny Boyle, co-directed by Loveleen Tandan and written by Simon Beaufoy, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” is about a young man from the slums of Mumbai who appears on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (Kaun Banega Crorepati, mentioned in the Hindi version) and exceeds people's expectations, arousing the suspicions of the game show host and of law enforcement officials. Beaufoy based his script upon the Boeke Prize-winning and Commonwealth Writers' Prize-nominated novel, ”Q & A” (2005), written by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup.

The question is – do I believe that ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” had deserved its Best Picture Oscar? Honestly? No, I do not. In fact, the movie did not even make my list of Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2008. In some ways, I do feel that it is slightly overrated. No movie is perfect, but the flaws in this movie – or aspects of the movie I saw as flaws – made me wonder how it managed to win Oscars in the Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay categories. I realize that this movie is based upon Swarup’s novel, in which the plot is centered around a popular game show. But I really could have done without this particular plot device. I found the scenes that featured Jamal Malik’s moments during the question-and-answer sessions of the game show unnecessarily dramatic. This plot device also provided a ridiculously over-the-top ‘happy ending’ that provided a sharp contrast to most of the story. And the idea that the game show questions provided triggers to Jamal’s reminisces about his childhood and his feelings about Latika, a girl he first fell in love with following the deaths of their parents in a mob attack did not exactly work for me. It seemed . . . off. There were times when director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy made it difficult to keep track on what Jamal was reminiscing in regard to the question he was being asked on the game show. By biggest complaints centered around the movie’s second half, the characterization of Latika and Chris Dickens’ editing.

At least two-thirds of ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” are focused around the boyhoods of Jamal’s recollections of his childhood in the slums of Mumbai with his older brother, Salim. In my opinion, this was the movie’s strongest part. It was not perfect, but a hell of a lot better than the second half. There have been complaints that Boyle’s savage look into Mumbai’s slums is not the real India. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. I would not know. I have never seen the real India. I must admit that the series of incidents presented in the movie’s first half left me feeling that I was watching an Anglo-Indian version of a Charles Dickens novel. Especially ”Oliver Twist”. And I found it fascinating, despite the squalor presented on the screen. But once the movie’s setting shifted to 2006 Mumbai, I found myself mired in a contrived story in which the rescue of Jamal’s love, Latika, from a wealthy gangster depended upon his success on the ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” show. As it turned out, Latika ended up being rescued by Jamal’s gangster brother, Salim.

Speaking of Latika, she proved to be another problem. Quite frankly, I found her character rather one-dimensional and frustrating. She seemed to be the ultimate example of the damsel-in-distress archetype. Jamal saw her as his ”destiny”. I saw her as this rather uninteresting character that became nothing more than a trophy for various character – including Jamal. There was one scene in which Salim decided to claim Latika as a sex partner after he had saved her and Jamal by killing some minor gangster whom she worked for. Jamal naturally tried to prevent Salim from claiming Latika. Latika did nothing . . . until she agreed to sleep with Salim to prevent him from hurting Latika. And I . . . was disgusted. She could have easily helped Jamal overcome Salim. Instead, she stood there like an idiot before offering herself to the older brother. The only time Latika ever really did something for herself was when she unsuccessfully tried to flee from the wealthy gangster. She was a very frustrating character and I felt sorry for the actresses – especially Freida Pinto – forced to portray such an uninteresting character. One last problem I had with this movie was Chris Dickens’ editing. It seemed like it was more appropriate for a MTV music video clip, instead of a two hour movie. Worse, it interfered with my enjoyment of Anthony Dod Mantle’s colorful cinematography. What makes this nauseating is that Dickens managed to win an Oscar for his work.

On the whole, ”SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE” is pretty good movie that tries to give Westerners a peek into late 20th century and early 21st century India. The movie can boast some first rate performances by the movie’s lead actor, Dev Petel, who portrayed the 18 year-old Jamal, Tanay Chheda as the pre-adolescent Jamal, Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as the young Salim and Tanay Chheda as the early adolescent Salim. I was also impressed by Irrfan Khan’s performance as the police inspector who interrogated Jamal throughout most of the movie. He and Petel created a very interesting screen team. As I had stated earlier, I was also impressed by Mantle’s cinematography in the movie. Despite the squalor that permeated the scenes featuring Jamal and Salim’s childhood, he infused the photography with color, energy and sweep. And what can I say about the exciting music featured in this film? I loved it. A. R. Rahman definitely deserved his Oscar for one of the most exciting and original film scores I have heard in years . . . and that includes ”Jai Ho”, the song he wrote for the film. By the way, he earned a well deserved Oscar for that as well.

Considering the eight (8) Academy Awards that it had earned, I wish I could say that it deserved all of its awards. But I do not think it did. Despite the movie’s first-rate cast, Mantle’s excellent photography and Rahman’s superb score, I cannot say that it was the best movie I had seen in 2008. In fact, it failed to make my list of 10 favorite movies for that year. Frankly, I found Simon Beaufoy’s script rather uneven and his characterization of the Latika character one-dimensional. And Danny Boyle failed to rise above these flaws with his direction. But . . . despite the movie’s flaws, I could honestly say that it would have made my list of the top 20 movies of 2008.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 27th, 2012 07:56 am (UTC)
I absolutely agree with you about a lot of your points here. The whole portrayal of the film as a love story (and clearly the suggestion seems to be that the protagonist is entering the game show because of love) seems deeply undermined by the complete lack of character development or even screen time for the female protagonist.

I actually found that many of the issues related to the game show questions seemed to suggest only a slim understanding of India. For example, one argument used to suggest that the protagonist couldn't have known what figure was on that particular Dollar bill is that he doesn't know what figure is on a particular Rupee note. The problem with that is that it doesn't matter what amount the Rupee note is worth, it still has the exact same famous figure on it. There's no way he wouldn't have known that. (Even if he's only ever possessed coins, he'd still have SEEN a rupee note of some kind at some point. Mahatma Gandhi is a hard face to miss.)

Also, his encounter with Hindu rioters is not an explanation for why he knows who Rama is. He needed to know what the figure of Rama was in order to recognise what the child was dressed as and images of Rama are found liberally all over India, just like images of Ganesh, Lakshmi and, heck, even Jesus.

On the editing, you are absolutely right. It felt very patchwork to me, not really giving me a strong sense of narrative. I wonder whether that's not partially to do with the way the script works. Since it is a series of stories based around game show questions, so it's inevitably going to proceed in bits for that reason.

After all your criticisms I find it surprising that you'd rank it in your top 20 of that year. You rightly note the gorgeous cinematography as well as the music from the consistently-wonderful A.R. Rahman. I think those two elements have an enchanting quality and as great as they are to see and hear, I don't think the story is really worthy of them. When I first wrote my review I found it hard to rank the film too low, probably because of the way the background aesthetics appealed to me, and found myself gradually lowering the score within the same day as I wrote the review, the more I thought about it. In a year with "In Bruges", "I've Loved You So Long", "Julia" and "Son of Rambow", I find it hard to believe that this film can really find a place in a top 20 list for that year. (Naturally it is YOUR list and therefore YOUR decision, but considering your damning review, I wonder whether you are ignoring some of your own criticisms due to the film's enchanting qualities.
Dec. 27th, 2012 08:12 am (UTC)
Naturally it is YOUR list and therefore YOUR decision, but considering your damning review, I wonder whether you are ignoring some of your own criticisms due to the film's enchanting qualities.

No, I wasn't ignoring some of my criticisms. And my ranking remains the same.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )



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