Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Slumdog Millionaire

In early 2009 I was stunned by a cinematic experience so bright, colourful, exciting and interesting that I saw the movie twice within a week. The film was Slumdog Millionaire and a month later it won seven BAFTAS and eight Oscars including the big one, Best Picture. The film is a somewhat fantastical but highly engaging story of love, hardship and fortune told from the point of view of young Mumbai tea boy Jamal Malik (Dev Patel). Through his eyes we are told the story of his eighteen years and of his continuing search for his lost love Latika (Freida Pinto). In the hope that she sees him, Jamal becomes a contestant on India’s highest rated game show Who Wants to be a Millionaire but when he fortuitously answers several difficult questions correctly the host (Anil Kapoor) and Police (Irrfan Khan) want their own answers, most pressingly how he knows what he knows.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I love this movie. I love everything about it from the direction, the soundtrack and the story to the cute child actors and cute adult actors (Pinto). After my initial double viewing I didn’t see the film again until today, over four years later. As soon as the titles rolled I got the little tingle that I got on my first viewing and by the end I was sure that my affection for the film hadn’t diminished at all.

The plot is based on the 2005 novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup and is told using flashback to Jamal’s childhood when he is pressed about questions he has answered on the show. He is initially ill treated by the police in what verges on torture and there are uncomfortable and upsetting scenes scattered throughout the film. These include the likes of child mutilation and prostitution, rape, murder and other violence. It is because of the sometimes heavy and distressing subject matter that the tagline ‘The feel good film of the year’ was met with some puzzlement but in the end it is probably justified. The popular phrase at the time went ‘there was a lot of Slumdog before the Millionaire’. The story is fascinating and enchanting but it can be argued that it is fantastical. It always fits that Jamal’s questions can be answered using some memory from his youth and this may annoy some but I was so infatuated with the film that it didn’t bother me. On my third viewing I did pick up on it more though.

Early on Jamal and his brother Salim are forced to fend for themselves in a country with little or no organised or centralised care for children in their situation. Over the years they are faced with living on giant rubbish heaps and have to worry about child catching gangs. They also meet the young Latika who drives Jamal’s story. Initially the three central characters are played by three very young Mumbai children with no acting experience. They were themselves ‘Slumdogs’ and the film thrust them and their own stories into the limelight (for a few weeks at least). The three children are fantastic. Their lack of experience of acting but experience of the slum produces incredibly realistic performances and I was a little sad to see them turn into the teenage characters after about thirty or forty minutes. The teens are also very good but it’s hard to forget about the impact made by the original actors. The adult actors are excellent. Dev Patel was known here in the UK before the film but I’d never seen any of his TV stuff. He is entirely believable as the love sick and head strong tea boy and was it not for my knowledge that he was English I would never have realised he wasn’t Indian. Madhur Mittal has less to do than the other leads but is equally as impressive. Then we have Freida Pinto. When I talked earlier about my love for the film being the reason for seeing it twice I might not have been entirely truthful. I personally think that Pinto is the most attractive woman I’ve ever seen (sorry Scarlett) ((and Katie!)). For a lot of the film she is absent and only seen in occasional flashes which adds intrigue and tension. Her acting is very good and it’s easy to see why Jamal goes to such lengths to find her again.

One of my favourite things about the film is the sublime soundtrack which was composed and produced by A.R. Rahman. Rahman won two Oscars himself for his work on the film – for soundtrack and song Jai Ho, a song which was later cruelly ruined by The Pussycat Dolls. A second song O… Saya was also nominated for an Oscar. The soundtrack blends classic Indian music with Hip-Hop and House Music to give it a unique, toe tapping vibe which works astoundingly well with the visuals. The soundtrack is one of only a few I’ve bought and I still listen to it four years down the line. British/Tamil rapper M.I.A. provided a couple of songs for the soundtrack including a personal favourite Paper Planes.

Director Danny Boyle was another to win an Oscar for the film. His direction is superb and captures the vibrancy, chaos and colour of India really well. He and his editor Chris Dickens and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (also both Oscar winners) create some stunning pictures of India, showing both its good and bad sides. One of the opening scenes features the young Malik and Salim running through their slum to evade police capture. This is one of my favourite scenes. It is frenetic, vivid and full of character and Boyle’s camera manages to get right inside the slum before taking us back out for a magnificent and wide bird’s eye view of the buzzing, alive and cramped slum. Boyle often uses off centre angles and juddering camera movements and speeds which make the audience feel as though they are being bumped around inside the mass of people and buildings. This continues throughout the film and is also used successfully in flashbacks to present the idea that we are viewing a memory. The film feels slick and gritty at times but is also incredibly beautiful.

I’ve been racking my brains to think of something bad to say about Slumdog Millionaire but unfortunately I’m at a loss. There is nothing I’d seek to improve or alter and would happily watch it for a second time tonight. It could be said that the film presents an overly simplified view of India and that the poverty and riches don’t match the real thing but I’m not really the person to comment on that. Otherwise it is a perfectly paced, perfectly filmed movie with a fantastic cast, great setting and beautiful cinematography. The film neatly fits into the Indian Masala genre in that it flawlessly mixes genres from crime to action to melodrama and romance. It is uplifting and it is brilliant.  

GFR 10/10

  • The pile of human waste which one character jumps into was made using a mixture of peanut butter and chocolate.
  • It took A.R Rahman just 20 days to compose the soundtrack.
  • Only Slumdog Millionaire and Schindler's List have ever won Best Picture and Best Director at eh Oscars, BAFTAS and Golden Globes. The duo are also the only Best Picture winners to show a child jumping into faeces. 
  • Shah Rukh Khan was wanted for the role of the game show host (and is the real life host of the show) but he declined.
Inspired by the movie and the confusion of a former colleague, I made this stop motion film based on Slumdog Millionaire.


  1. Yay for Slumdog fans! It seems like a lot of people feel like they are too cool to praise this film nowadays.

    1. On the surface it looks like a glossy romance so some people might not think it's critically worthy. Personally though I think it's fantastic.

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