“Serendipity” originated in India. The word derives from the old Persian name for Sri Lanka, and tells the story of three princes who went on a journey, always stumbling upon things that seemed inconsequential, but turned out to be important later in their lives. These accidental discoveries led them to claim unsought rewards (marriage to beautiful princesses, wealth, land) as a result of their wisdom and reasoning.
It seems only fitting that the film that swept the Golden Globes this year, a film about India, should exemplify how Fate and the determination of an individual can overcome misery and despair.
Following a few great European directors before him, like Jean Renoir (The River), Louis Malle (Phantom India), and David Lean (A Passage to India), Danny Boyle cleverly, chooses not to assume the role of an insider. He sees India with Western eyes – eyes so sensitive to detail that his vision of India is an epic, modern poem of hope and perseverance set against a backdrop of burning colors, dust, and teeming humanity.
Vikas Swarup’s novel, Q & A, is terrific source material. The story centers on a boy from the slums of Bombay (now Mumbai), abused, orphaned, forced to hustle and con to survive, who fortuitously lands as a contestant in India’s most popular game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and to the shock of the glib host and the rapt viewers, nails every question to pull himself out of poverty.
The story’s hero, Jamal Malik, tells us, “You don’t have to be a genius to get it right.” For him, you learn by living. Each question posed on the game show turns out to have significant meaning in Jamal’s life, and triggers a wave of memory, often rife with pain and realization, that leads him to pick the right answers.
Simon Beaufoy’s kaleidoscopic screenplay and Boyle’s imaginative direction bring these memories to life so vividly, that the imagery haunts you long after you’ve left the theater:
scenes of young Jamal and his older brother, Salim, outracing corrupt petty policeman, with M.I.A.’s raspy, soulful voice pulsating in the background; the horror of the Mumbai riots, where mobs of Hindu fundamentalists tear through the slums and kill Jamal’s mother as a young boy painted in bright blue dressed as the warrior-god Ram stands by, passively observing the carnage; and, a truly inspired moment when the seven-year-old Jamal, trapped in an outhouse, learns of superstar Amitabh Bachan’s nearby visit, and literally, swims through shit to get his autograph.
Older Jamal is played with steely resolve by the talented British actor, Dev Patel. Patel’s angular, gaunt face and thin, wiry lips are wonderfully expressive; He has the look of a young man who’s lived far beyond his years. There’s a brilliant scene with the slick game show host, Prem Kumar, played by veteran Bollywood star, Anil Kapoor. Kumar has just tried to give Jamal a tip-off to a crucial question. It’s a casual act of sabotage that he thinks an uneducated “slumdog” won’t be able to resist. But the interaction that ensues on the set of the game show between the complacent, insidiously evil host and the wise contestant ends up having all the charged suspense and quiet exhilaration of a stand-off in a well-made Western.
The soul of the film is the love story between Jamal and his childhood sweetheart, Latika. Jamal’s relentless need to reunite with her and to keep her safe and happy is what motivates him to get on the game show in the first place. Circumstance and poverty turns her into a gangster’s moll, and her attempts to escape are thwarted by the bad man’s ruthless thugs. If millions of viewers tune in to see Jamal on the show, then perhaps Latika will be among them, and she can get out to reach him. She’s embodied beautifully by Freida Pinto, who possesses such innate grace and delicacy that she seems to glow from within.
Slumdog Millionaire is a brilliant, young man vs. the Establishment story. It’s Dickens gone Bollywood. Steven Spielberg, in his acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award said that Hollywood needs to accept the fact that the future of entertainment is changing, and that we will begin to see more stories told with a greater diversity of people from different backgrounds and cultures. Slumdog’s finale, an enthusiastic send-off to Indian movie dance numbers, is a glorious confirmation of that statement.