The best movie experiences are the ones you are unprepared for. All I knew going into Slumdog Millionaire was that some were calling it this year’s Juno, in that it is this year’s critic’s darling, the independent film that is garnering lots of buzz and will likely find itself in the Oscar race come January. But now, having actually seen it, if we want to compare it to a recent independent Oscar nominee, it runs more akin to Babel than Juno, simply for its overseas setting and depth and breadth of scope and more serious tone.
But to even imply similarities between Slumdog Millionaire and Juno or Babel would be irresponsible. To imply similarities between Slumdog Millionaire and any recent film would be just wrong. This film is an experience unto itself. There is no other way to put it.
Slumdog Millionaire is not an easy film to watch. It is set in Mumbai, India, most of it shot in the slums (an amazing feat for the filmmakers in of itself), and tells the story of Jamal Malik and his experiences growing up as an orphan there. It is a harrowing tale, and one that is often difficult to take. But the way screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (based on the novel by Vikas Swarup) and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) structure the narrative moves the story along at such a perfect pace that we never linger too long in any one place, staying just long enough to understand why we’re there. This film is about one man’s journey through life towards his believed destiny, and we, as an audience, must connect with him through each chapter, through each decision, through each painful event, and the scope of this story, when you look back, is both wide-ranging and incredibly intimate, and Beaufoy and Boyle do an amazing job at telling an extremely personal story against an immensely chaotic, broad and sometimes tragic backdrop.
But it is just this story and screenplay that are the stars of this film. What made this film so wonderful for me was that I knew so little going in, so I will not ruin it for you here, if you have not yet seen it. But what I will say is the way Jamal’s story is revealed to us throughout the course of the film, the convention that is used, is tremendously clever and adds another layer to the story in such an inventive way that it builds its own tension and has its own payoff. Not since Pulp Fiction has a narrative structure been such a crucial part of a film and so successful.
And it’s not just the structure that deserves credit here. This script weaves characters with their stories and makes you care about them, about where they are going, about what happens to them. This is your run-of-the-mill coming-of-age-in-Hell story and it is written with texture, depth, humor, realism and not a single second of pity. This story will rip your heart out but, by the end, will have put it back in place and made it feel twice as big.
It helps that the actors are wonderful as well. While it is a bit distracting to have three different actors playing each main character (to allow for the aging from childhood to adulthood), it still works. Unfortunately, for each of the characters, the youngest child actors are the strongest and are given the most meaty roles, so when they are gone, you really miss them. Particularly strong is Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, who plays the youngest version of Jamal. Khedekar is heartbreaking and heartlifting all at once, able to find the joys of childhood while being forced to face cruelties and tragedies no human should ever see, let alone a child experience. It is a staggering performance, and one you are not likely to forget quickly.
This film pulls no punches on the senses either. It is visually stunning, with an editing master class put on in almost every scene, as the pace, again, is nearly non-stop. Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle certainly doesn’t do the Mumbai Chamber of Commerce any favors as he paints his canvas with the foul-looking, over-crowded, dirty streets and slums of India, perfectly capturing the story’s setting, mood and ambiance. Every artistic element is first-rate, but particular mention must be made of the music. The pulsing and hyper score by A. R. Rahman is another character unto itself, frenetic and vibrant, carrying us along this turbulent tale, rising up at the perfect moments, calming down when we need to breathe. Be sure to stay for Rahman’s curtain call during the closing credits…it is well-deserved.
The breadth and depth of this picture is certain, but it is its intimacy that makes it work. It is one man’s story set against an immense backdrop told in a very clever way and it works. It is hard to watch at times, but it is an experience that will leave you breathless at times, moved at times, heartbroken at times, shocked at times, smiling at times, and, in the end, grateful to have taken the journey.
Go see this one now before the hype ruins it, if I haven’t already. Trust me, I haven’t told you anything, except that this film is worth your time. Many films are worth your money. This is one that is worth your time.