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‘Slumdog’ deserves award-winning buzz

POSTED: February 4, 2009 10:30 p.m.
/Fox Searchlight

Jamal (Dev Patel), left, and Latika (Freida Pinto) embrace in a scene from "Slumdog Millionaire," a movie of struggle and inspiration.

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By now, you’ve probably heard plenty of hype surrounding "Slumdog Millionaire," so there is no point in my lumping onto it.

Except that the film deserves every bit of the buzz it has generated in recent months.

Director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later") has delivered the unlikeliest of hits that, even though it’s rooted very much in Indian culture, has managed to win over audiences around the world. Once you’ve seen it, there’s no mystery why it has done so well.

Jamal (Dev Patel) is a young man from the slums of Mumbai who takes a shot at riches on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Incredibly, this uneducated teenager keeps answering questions correctly. It’s so unprecedented that the elitist host of the show (Anil Kapoor) becomes convinced Jamal must be cheating.

After the first day of filming Jamal’s episode of the show, the host turns him over to a police inspector (Irrfan Khan), who uses borderline torture tactics to interrogate him.

Jamal reviews each question and explains how incidents from his own childhood supplied him with answers to questions that, miraculously, he was asked on the show.

The interrogation provides a framework for a magic realist biography of Jamal’s life so far. And what an oppressively tragic life he has had. Jamal has suffered one horror and loss after another. "Dickensian" is the adjective most frequently used to describe the film, and rightfully so. This boy’s life has been as sad as it gets, and it recalls many of the classic Charles Dickens themes: family, poverty and, of course, love.

We begin to realize that Jamal’s appearance on the game show is inspired by more than money. When still a boy, he met Latika (Freida Pinto) a young girl orphaned and homeless just like him. She becomes the love of his life, and he will confront all manner of danger, including a treacherous game show host and his own homicidal, gangster brother (Madhur Mittal) to find her and protect her.

We don’t watch "Slumdog Millionaire." We experience it. Boyle is in top form and the filmmaking is exciting. The story is a terrific ride through sickening depths, exhiliarating heights and all points in between.

It isn’t a perfect film, but it is filled with more spirit than any other 2008 release.

All the tragedy, all the melodrama, pay off and we leave the theater elated. Rather than smothering our faith in humanity, "Slumdog Millionaire" ultimately renews it.

No one expected "Slumdog" to make such a splash. In fact, at one point its distributors had so little confidence in the film they planned to release it straight to DVD. Now, it’s a global sensation, playing well in almost every country in which it has been released. Even in India, where half the population objected to its portrayal of the Mumbai slums, it has done solid business.

This buzz has grown not out of a massive publicity campaign, as is usually the case, but simply from word-of-mouth recommendations.

Many of the 2008 awards movies are now making it to our theaters, but this is one you should not miss.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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