Yesterday I scratched another movie off my Oscar best picture list.
I saw “Slumdog Millionaire” in a packed matinee theater.
Here’s what I knew going in: it’s a rags-to-riches story about a poor kid who gets on a game show, and it might be a musical. Oh, and the leading lady is stunningly beautiful.
Here’s what I learned while watching it: it’s set in India, specifically in Mumbai. It is not a musical. It’s directed by Danny Boyle, an Irish working-class guy whose previous movies include an awesome zombie movie, a sci-fi flop, and a movie about drug addicts. And the structure of the movie intrigued me as a writer.
Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is being tortured because he’s suspected of cheating in India’s version of the game show “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” Seems the local corrupt constabulary don’t believe that a kid who grew up in the slums could possibly know all the various trivia that lets him work his way up the ladder until he’s on the verge of winning twenty million rupees (about US$407,000 – not a lot to you and me, but I’d imagine it’s a life-changing amount of money in India).
Jamal has had no formal education, he’s scammed his way around India with his cruel but loyal older brother, Salim, and his only goal in life is to find, and rescue, Latika, the young girl who joined the two brothers as the third Musketeer to their Athos and Porthos but was kept by a Mumbaikar Fagin and forced into a life of crime.
But as he tells how he knows the answer to each trivia question, the movie flashes back to show the specific circumstances that led to him gaining that knowledge. The coincidences add up as the movie fills in his squalid life until he’s got a semi-respectable job as a “chai wallah” (tea server) in a customer call center, but I never lost my willingness to suspend belief. I did sometimes recall Cliff Claven’s dream board in Jeopardy, but Boyle and his screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (who adapted the novel “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup) never play it for laughs and each incident seems organic and natural. It’s only on reflection after the fact that I began to question it all, and by then the charm of the story had overcome any misgivings I had.
In fact, now that I think about it, the story parallels the rise of an adherent of Hinduism through the ranks of the four Puruṣārthas, or goals of a human existence. But I don’t know much about that beyond what’s in Wikipedia. Someone more scholarly than I is invited to analyze the story from that perspective.
Me? I just enjoyed the hell out of that movie.