December 27, 2008

Ask the Audience

I wanted to watch something light and uplifting on Christmas Day, so I put off watching Doubt and went to see Slumdog Millionaire instead. And it did not disappoint. Based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup, it is the story of Jamal Malik(Dev Patel), a boy who grew up in the slums of then-Bombay and became a contestant on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in hopes of reuniting with childhood friend-girl-of-his-dreams Latika (the beautiful Freida Pinto, who reminded me of Rosario Dawson at times). He does so well on the program that he gets hauled off to jail on suspicions of cheating, for he is after all, only an uneducated slumdog. So we get to see how he knows the answers as the story of his life unfolds in flashbacks. Some of it are overreaching and contrived, but I bought into the fairy tale. The supporting cast is marvelous: the always solid Irrfan Khan as the investigating police detective, Madhur Mittal as Jamal's brother Salim (you'll have a love-hate relationship with him), and Anil Kapoor as the slightly sinister and oily game show host. But the bigger stars were the children playing the main characters' younger selves. They gave completely natural and unself-conscious performances. (Cinematography note: I loved the visual images when Jamal was trying to get Salim to let Latika in out of the rain. Lots of other gorgeous shots.) The movie's Bollywood score by A.H. Rahman is so infectious, I might even want a copy of the soundtrack.

The movie is faintly reminiscent of City of God, with the same colors, energy and its depiction of abject poverty but not as graphic or violent. Although I grew up in the Philippines and familiar with the sight of mountains of trash, houses put together with scrap material, kids begging on the streets, women washing clothes in murky waters, it's still a harsh sight to behold. Seeing Mumbai after last month's tragedy was a bit jolting, especially the train station where the film's Bollywood ending occurs. I got a little teary-eyed at the end of this rags-to-riches underdog survival fairy tale love story. And it was the perfect, joyous movie to watch on Christmas Day. Some members of the audience obviously agreed: they applauded at the end.


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