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Maximum Movie: The Secret of Slumdog’s Success

3 December 2008 2,281 Views 7 Comments author: Brian Jewell

Slumdog Millionaire, surely one of the best movies of 2008, is based on a novel called Q&A. Having only visited India vicariously, I might have guessed it was based on Maximum City, Suketu Mehta’s compulsively readable portrait of Bombay. In the forward, Mehta writes:

“Some parts of central Bombay have a population density of 1 million people per square mile. This is the highest number of individuals massed together at any spot in the world…Bombay is the biggest, fastest, richest city in India…It is a maximum city.”

From the thrilling early sequence in which slum kids run through a colorful warren of alleys before the camera pans up to show the unexpected beauty of tin roofs, and further up and out so the neighborhood becomes a rusty patchwork quilt, director Danny Boyle plunges us into this vivid corner of the world where the highs and lows are so far apart while, paradoxically, being right on top of each other. In this movie, everything goes to eleven: the narrative barrels along like a runaway train, the slings and arrows of fortune are indeed outrageous, and even the subtitles fling themselves across the screen with color and urgency.

Against this richly textured backdrop unfolds the seemingly simple story of Jamal Malik, an impoverished, uneducated teenager who is on the verge of winning a record 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. How has this hard luck kid, this nobody, this slumdog, outperformed everyone else who ever appeared on the show? The movie proposes, game show style, four possibilities: A) He cheated, B) He’s lucky, C) He’s a genius, D) It is written – it’s destiny. The producers of the show have settled on A) He cheated, and the movie opens with Jamal being roughly interrogated by the police.

And so unfolds the film’s clever structure: as Jamal and a weary police inspector review tapes of the show, we learn that each pivotal question resonates with Jamal’s life. Asked to name the star of the 1973 film Zanjeer, Jamal flashes on his boyhood idol, Amitabh Bachchan. A question about religion brings up a veritable engram about being Muslim in India. A seemingly obscure question about an old song evokes chilling memories of being a child beggar. And on and on the story goes, zipping back and forth through time, and we quickly realize this isn’t a cute movie about a plucky kid who wins a game show. This is the life story of a survivor.

Just about everything in this movie works, but the secret to Slumdog’s success–what makes it so satisfying–is the structure. The slow unfolding of all the brutal things that have happened to Jamal, and the realization that those experiences are now useful to him, give the film an emotional truth that few so-called “feel good” films dare to approach.

One bubble-headed professional reviewer said that Slumdog is this year’s Little Miss Sunshine. That’s totally backwards. Like most “uplifting” movies, Little Miss Sunshine is all formula, little heart and no risk; all it offers is the usual vague advice to “just believe in yourself.” Slumdog Millionaire isn’t an easy “feel-good movie,” it’s a “feel-human movie.” Like the indomitable whore in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Jamal has been through the shit and dammit he’s still here; “strong at the broken places,” as Hemingway said, and still wanting, as Kushner said, “More. More life!”

At the film’s climax, back in the TV studio, Jamal is finally hit with a question he can’t answer. And he – laughs. It’s not about the money. The final answer to how he did it is D) It is written. Of course it is written – Jamal wrote it himself.

Reviewers are trumpeting Slumdog Millionaire as a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination (What a strange, crass way to say, “I loved this movie.”) but I’d like to make a bigger, grander prediction. I think this film will be a big step forward in the West rediscovering Indian cinema. I know, I know. It’s a bitter irony that it would take a director from the U.K. to help make it happen (although the Indian casting director, Loveleen Tandon, ended up shaping the film so much she snagged a co-director credit). But let’s be honest: few Americans even know that Bollywood, Hindi cinema and Indian cinema don’t mean the same thing. You can’t get away with dismissing Japanese movies as being all about samurais or repressed families, but it’s generally okay to make fun of Bollywood as the domain of mustachioed heroes who dance around trees with plump heroines.

And while, as often happens, there may be a kernel of truth there – I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that the eighties and early nineties were a Golden Age for Hindi cinema – the joke is at least ten years out of date. With squarely commercial directors like Ram Gopal Varma, and Karan Johar and his cronies, stretching the form and content of Bollywood; with the likes of Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Mani Ratnam, Vishal Bharadwaj and Madhur Bhandarkar dissolving the boundaries between art films and the mainstream; and with new whiz kids like Sriram Raghavan and Dibakar Banerjee popping up every year, Hindi cinema is rapidly approaching its next Golden Age. So if it takes a Danny Boyle to get people interested in the work of A.R. Rahman, Irrfan Khan or Anil Kapoor, so be it. I’m just glad that more people will finally be ready to enjoy Hindi cinema. Hindi cinema is sure ready for them.

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