" What a relief. The symbologist is here. "
Angels & Demons

MRQE Top Critic

Les Choristes

The French confection Les Choristes is now available on a skimpy, movie-only DVD —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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Slumdog Millionaire is an ambitious hybrid of many genres: it’s Bollywood and Hollywood, an adventure and a romance, a coming-of-age and a tale of first love, a story of brothers and a trio of musketeers. Not least of all this is a story of a boy who is himself a hybrid of old and new: an orphan from the slums who works as a “chai walla” at a call center and stands to win millions on the Indian version of the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” TV quiz show.

Part of our coverage of the Starz Denver Film Festival
Part of our coverage of the Starz Denver Film Festival

Each of the questions on the quiz show prompts a flashback to the scene that reveals how the young “slumdog” knew the answers, so we learn how a few who became orphans at one terrible moment become friends but are forced to abandon one, unable to rescue her from the adults who wish to abuse and profit from all of them. Some of these scenes are quite horrific — Hindi mobs battering Muslims, the people who run the “orphanage” maiming the children so they will provoke more sympathy and earn more begging on the streets, policemen trying to extract a confession from their prisoner.

Slumdog Millionaire’s crowded, gritty, fiery slums of Bombay brings the film, co-directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and Loveleen Tandan, closer to revealing the sheer density of India’s cities than many Indian and Western narrative films. The Western desire to peel back the layers of veneer and see the “real India” is here embodied and mocked equally by the Indian children we see employing a broad variety of scams to extract cash from Westerners, from pickpocketing to supergluing the lids back onto used and refilled water bottles to make them appear new. As it is in India, the realities of daily street life are on full display here: kids wash and splash in the public pools that are be used for everything: bathing, washing dishes and clothes, cooking, drinking. Men pick trash in the river; children and adults pick trash at the dump.

Each question on the quiz show flashes back to reveal how the “slumdog” knew the answer
Each question on the quiz show flashes back to reveal how the “slumdog” knew the answer

While the city of Mumbai is as vivid here as are any of its lead characters, it is the children — the younger versions of the brothers Jamal and Salim, and their third musketeer, Latika — who haunt you even longer than do the graphic scenes of city life. Boyle elicited similarly wonderful performances from kids in his 2004 film Millions, about a saint-obsessed boy and his brother’s sudden windfall.

While Slumdog is tightly structured by the revelations that follow the course of the game show, it careens vividly toward its satisfyingly romantic conclusion, yet with the generous dollop of tragedy I’ve practically come to expect in every Indian novel I read. Boyle’s film belongs on the growing list of films like Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding that succeed both in celebrating the rich beauty of India’s culture and speaking aloud its terrible truths.