Culture | Living in the gutter, looking at the stars

Danny Boyle’s latest film finds romance in the harsh reality of Mumbai slums

In the spirit of President Barack Obama’s victory, it is fitting that one of 2008’s most memorable films, Slumdog Millionaire, is the story of achieving one’s dreams despite all odds. The film’s main character, Jamal Malik (played by Dev Patel), dreams not of a high-powered career or financial wealth, but of being reunited with his childhood love, Latika (played by Freida Pinto), despite the unbelievable hardships he must face.

As the movie opens, Jamal is being interrogated by city officials who believe he cheated his way to the top of the Indian version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Jamal astonishes everyone – including himself – when he answers all questions correctly and finds himself one question away from winning 20-million rupees. Those who doubt that a young boy who grew up in the depths of poverty can achieve the improbable have a lot to learn about how far perseverance, determination, and a little bit of chance can go.

Through a series of flashbacks that highlight how Jamal is blindsided by struggle after struggle, viewers learn that all Jamal needed to answer the questions correctly was his own life experience. We also learn how he and his brother, Salim (played by Madhur Mittal), are orphaned when brutal, religiously-motivated hate crimes sweep through the slums of Mumbai, how he survived his difficult childhood days through grit and fear, and how his lifelong journey to find Latika finally brings him to the hot seat of the city’s most popular game show.

Categorizing Slumdog as a romantic drama falls drastically short of accurately describing this whirlwind of a film. After witnessing the miserable conditions the young characters are forced to cope with, Jamal and Latika’s love story is the last thing on one’s mind by the movie’s end. During the closing credits, characters break out into a typical uplifting Bollywood dance sequence, yet one does not know whether to feel crushed, overjoyed, or relieved. The film intricately weaves together the harsh, inescapable realities of impoverished India while still embodying the vibrancy and beauty of the country’s people and culture. Hailed as one of the best contemporary representations of India on film, Slumdog captures the raw, contagious energy that arises from the country’s astounding heterogeneity.

What further validates the film’s hype is the flawless and natural acting of child actors, Ayush Khedekar (youngest Jamal), Azharuddin Ismail (youngest Salim), and Rubiana Ali (youngest Latika). The latter two were in fact street kids with no prior acting experience. That the movie’s director, Danny Boyle, is providing them with an education and a trust fund makes this film all the more praiseworthy.

Intertwined with a captivating plot and dynamic characters are the upbeat and infectious sounds of musical genius A.R. Rahman. Through his collaboration with Maya Arulpragasam, popularly known as M.I.A., the songs capture each moment of the film seamlessly with extraordinary prowess and a brilliant fusion of Western and Eastern sound and language. Couple this with the considerable talent of Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, and it is no wonder that Slumdog garnered all four of the Golden Globe Awards it was nominated for and, that it is nominated for an additional ten Oscars.

In truth, Slumdog is a film about real-life struggles and the vast discrepancy between the ugliness of reality and the sugarcoated tourist version. The film offers true-to-life insight into a world that many Westerners can hardly fathom. As the young kids in the movie transcend hurdle after hurdle, one realizes that this is an atypical film that is not gift-wrapped neatly in shiny wrapping paper, topped with a bow. Slumdog, then, is a film for the realist, the romantic, the cynic, and the believer.