Slumdog Millionaire has become the latest “must see” Best Picture award winner. While I actually liked the film better than I imagined I would, it’s precisely because the movie is not what it appears, or at times claims to be. If I just took the buzz and advertisement campaign to heart, I would expect a Bollywood picture to the extreme. If you’re not really sure what that term means, I can tell you that this movie will not really clarify anything for you. The traditional Bollywood, Indian made films, feature intense tragedy and love stories. They are usually swimming in song and dance numbers.Looking at the film’s television spot, it would seem that that’s exactly what this movie is. The problem? The song and dance that tends to dominate these spots is not even in the film proper. Rather, the only musical number occurs over the closing credits. Now, while all of this may sound like criticism, it’s actually not. I’ve seen Bollywood productions, and they’re just not up to my tastes. I never fidgeted and yawned so much in my life. That doesn’t mean they’re bad, by any means. I’m sure that there are some that are quite good and entertaining for some people. I’m merely not one of those folks. So, when I discovered that Slumdog Millionaire was going to land on my front door to watch and review, I began to sweat a little bit. How, I asked myself, am I going to handle having to blast the darling of the Hollywood circuit? Am I ready for the barrage of hate emails a negative review is likely to elicit? Fortunately, for us all, this is nothing at all like a true Bollywood film, and try as he might, Danny Boyle just can’t escape his own natural tendencies. In fact, I didn’t fidget or fuss at all. It’s a pretty good film, after all.
A few years ago Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was quite a large phenomenon on American television. The original game show, hosted by Regis Philbin, dominated the primetime airwaves. ABC milked that cash cow for all it was worth, and before long it seemed Millionaire was on just about every night. But, like all fads, the luster wore off, and the show began a steady decline. It survives today, but with lesser known hosts and as a half hour syndication show, usually aired pre-primetime. I’m told the show continues to be a hit abroad, and particularly in India. Whether or not that’s true, I can’t confirm. You do need to accept that premise, however, to buy into the movie. It doesn’t hurt to have at least a passing familiarity with the game’s general format. It looks very much like it did here. A new host and, of course, the currency is in local tender. Still, the spirit of the game we know here exists in India, according to the film.
As the film opens we meet Jamal (Patel) for the first time as the police are torturing him quite severely. He has been beaten and electrocuted. Was this some kind of a spy thriller I ended up with instead? No, Jamal is accused of cheating on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Apparently, they take cheating on game shows very seriously in India. I don’t even want to think about what happens to the guy who fudged his business expenses on his income tax form. I suspect those tales are too horrific for even an R rating. Jamal insists he did not cheat, and as he is finally brought in front of a small television, the cops begin to run the episode in which Jamal appeared. With each question that he answered correctly, they want to know how he came to have this knowledge. Why do they suspect him of cheating? The questions were, supposedly intended as stumpers to even the more educated persons. Jamal was just a Slumdog, a kid from the ghettos. It was inconceivable he could answer such questions correctly. So now it’s time for him to explain himself. Here’s where the film is very clever. It appears that each of these questions takes Jamal back to incidents in his childhood. What a rough childhood it was. He and his brother, Salim (Mittal) were orphaned very young and lived on the streets, barely surviving. They engaged in scams and were often caught up with the likes of very bad men. Along the way they are joined by a young girl, also alone. Her name is Latika (Pinto). Jamal has a crush on the young girl that never really goes away, even though she drifts in and out of his life. We witness this evolving childhood through flashbacks that always lead us to the point where Jamal encountered something that related to the game’s questions. Their encounters are like something out of Dickens. They run into a very Oliver Twist like band of thieves, that use children to beg and steal on the streets. We also learn that Jamal didn’t enter the game for the money. He’s trying to reach his lost love, Latika. With the huge popularity of the show, he believes she will see him there and come run away with him. Eventually the cops consider that he might be telling the truth, and lacking any evidence to the contrary, allow him to return for the final question. I won’t tell you how it all ends, but you already know you can expect a somewhat pat conclusion to this rather convoluted love story.
The game show is not really the plot point. Certainly it dominates much of the film, and unquestionably it drives the story forward. But the real story is the relationship between these three characters and how that relationship evolves. I was impressed with the casting choices. The different age incarnations were pretty accurate. There was a strong thread of believability in these characters, even if the story itself always felt unlikely. The child actors were great, and you’ll be drawn to them strongly from the beginning. A very fine performance is also delivered by Anil Kapoor, who plays the show’s host. He’s also a product of the slums, and he resents someone else trying to repeat his accomplishments by climbing out, as well. He’s a very larger than life character.
The film is quite stylish, as I’m sure you would expect from the man who gave us 28 Days Later. Expect to be exposed to very powerful images of poverty, violence, and tragedy. There is a very noticeable difference in the way the two parts of the film are shot. We get a very saturated and grimy image when we deal with these children growing up on the streets. There is very little here that’s pretty. On the game show set, however, everything is slick and colorful. The representation of these two worlds is the magic that makes the movie so effective. One or the other would have become monotonous after a time. Danny Boyle does an excellent job of interweaving these two integral stories. The cast is quite remarkable. Most were from India, particularly the children. That caused a bit of an awkward decision to be made by Doyle. The film is primarily in English. This is not a dubbed English, but rather the originally filmed language. The problem was that the children were not sufficiently fluent in English to allow them to retain the natural look and struggle with the language. So, the decision was made that the children would speak their natural Hindi, while as adults they would speak English. It was helpful that it was explained by Doyle in the extras, because it puzzled me as I watched the film. I found the explanation satisfying, and it put the film into better perspective for me.
So, did this movie deserve to win Best Picture? Of course, it’s a reasonable debate. I liked the film, but I found a few other titles from 2008 to be more deserving. I recently watched Doubt, which could have easily gotten the award, but wasn’t even nominated. Many believe that The Dark Knight should have taken the prize. Of course, a genre film has almost no chance of doing that, no matter how good it is. I also found The Wrestler to have been this film’s equal, if not superior. The debate is academic. It certainly deserved to be there, so I don’t have a problem with it. In any case, it won the award, and it is a compelling drama, loaded with some extraordinary images. You could do worse, I suppose.
Slumdog Millionaire is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. You’ll get a very strong 1080p image brought to you by the almost standard AVC/MPEG-4 codec. As I’ve already addressed, this looks like two separate films. The flashbacks were presented with a grainy and very saturated film. Colors are almost completely washed away, although there are moments where a splash of red stands out against a very dreary background. Even here, detail is very high. The present aspects show all of the bells and whistles of a modern digital production. Grain is almost non-existent. Colors are far brighter and contrast much tighter. Black levels here are phenomenal, when compared to those of the flashbacks. Now, understand that all of this is intentional. I assure you that you’re seeing the film exactly the way Boyle intends for you to see it. I did not watch the standard DVD presentation, but I suspect that these changes are less dramatic, which for some might be better. For me these stark contrasts of realities makes for a very engaging experience. There was one very serious issue. At about 1:03 there is an overwhelming amount of grain and what appears to be digital noise. It’s just for that one scene. I’m not really sure what went wrong there.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is a bit of a mixed bag for me, and I wasn’t as happy with it. There is a terrible issue with balance to deal with. The score is often too overpowering and washes out much of the important dialog. Surrounds are effective, but again too aggressive at times. While there is wonderful clarity, the mix often feels like it happened in a different place than the image. The feel of the space in the flashbacks is too small and confined compared to the larger canvas on the screen. In the game show studio these kinds of effects are appropriate and work well. I wish Boyle had spent as much attention to detail in the sound as he did in the image while creating these different worlds.
There is a Audio Commentary with director Danny Boyle and Dev Patel. The two are highly engaged and offer up a ton of information on the film. The insight is absolutely essential if you want to truly understand the film. It’s well worth the second pass to hear it.
A second Audio Commentary features producer Christian Coleson and writer Simon Beaufoy. This one’s not near as engaging and sounds more like a lecture.
All but one of these features is in SD.:
Deleted Scenes: There are 13 in all, and they last more than a half hour. They are center screen framed. Hey, I can’t imagine why they cut the scene of the little kid peeing on the cop. An important scene has the show host at the police station pushing the cops to get some answers from Jamal. There’s also a missing question and its flashback.
Slumdog Dreams – Danny Boyle And The Making Of Slumdog Millionaire: This 23 minute piece features Boyle and his mostly British crew. They provide a general synopsis. I’m not sure why these things get on these releases. The better stuff involves the behind the scenes footage. It’s split into two parts for royalty reasons.
Slumdog Cutdown: This 5 minute piece is the only HD extra. It’s a music video with film clips.
From Script To Screen – The Toilet Scene: It’s only 5 minutes, but who wouldn’t want to revisit this scene. It’s a moment when young Jamal is locked in a latrine by his brother. His hero action star is coming to town; he wants an autograph, and the only way out is down. You figure out the rest. It’s an iconic scene in the film, but they never tell us what the kid’s really covered with.
Manjha: This 41 minute film is an extremely symbolic Indian short film. I have to admit I didn’t get it.
Liquid Dance: It’s the musical end credits song and dance number.
European and American Trailers.
This is definitely one of those film experiences. It doesn’t help that you start to feel like you missed some vital cultural event if you hadn’t seen the film. It’s a shame that some of the hype is what will scare many of the general audiences away from the movie. It’s better than they present it in these advertisements. It pulled in a respectable $140 million at the box office and will likely do very well in this home release. Rent it or buy it? That all depends. This movie will hit people very differently, I suspect. Either way, it is one of those films you should see at least once. “The Slumdog barks.”