Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Movies: Slumdog Millionaire

Based on his previous work, you may have thought of Danny Boyle as an artist grounded by the simple acknowledgement of life's inherent darkness. Like me, you would have misread him. In this romantic fairytale, he discloses that he's never been interested in the darker side of things, except so long as they illuminate the brighter by contrast. This is all the more disappointing for its profligacy: he squanders brilliant child actors, gorgeous cinematography, and shattering social revelations in the service of a lame flashback-driven plot about destined lovers, ultimately undoing all of the expose-style work he began.

The film opens with a Guantanamo-sytle interrogation scene (it's disconcerting that we're becoming accustomed to these) of a skinny boy by a fat man and uniformed officer Irrfan Khan. Twenty minutes later, the same officer is serving the boy chai and listening to him spin a reticent yarn: the introduction to flashback scenes that explain how such a boy (an uneducated orphan of the slums who, now in his early 20s, makes his living serving chai at a mobile phone call center) could win Rs. 20,000,000 on a quiz show; mystically, each question related to a dramatic—usually traumatic—experience from his childhood and adolescence.

These flashbacks allow cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, working in perfect concert with a team of astonishing child actors, to reveal the sordid slums of Mumbai—a cross between a Hooverville and a trash heap—as little more than the children's playground: a playground where marauding terrorists light your home on fire and kill your mother, a playground where you are lured by a frosty Coca-Cola into the arms of a Dickensian villain who will burn your eyes out with hot oil (blind singers, and otherwise damaged beggars, earn more than the bodily able), and a playground where the girl you've befriended will be groomed carefully for the whorehouse. This is enough to make a movie; Americans don't like to see things like this happening, and when art shows it to them in a meaningful way, they do something about it.

They won't do anything about it, though, because halfway into the film, Boyle derails and decides to develop a romantic relationship between groomed-to-be-a-whore Latika and about-to-be-millionaire Jamal. When they finally kiss at the end (for the very first time), they are in their early twenties, and have spent a total of less than five hours together as adults. And yet, we expect them to live happily ever after, because "it is written." Audiences are so excited that Jamal has not only become a millionaire, but has also won the girl, they have forgotten all about the real orphans in India who do live on trash heaps (I know; I saw them) and who won't become millionaires or fall in love with a partner marked from before time. Worse, by giving his protagonist the two-for-one special, Boyle does not address the ugly reality that, had Jamal not won mad rupees, Latika (who is living with an abusive gangster twice her age when Jamal comes into his wealth) would not have run away with him.

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