Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.
There are very few movies we’ve seen at the end of which the entire audience remained silent and rooted to their seats – Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful, Sixth Sense … and now Slumdog Millionaire. An audience that had been vocal throughout the movie, with gasps, groans and giggles, found neither its voice nor its feet at the end.
Slumdog is the story of two young boys, Jamal and Salim, growing up in the slums of Mumbai. They adore their movie stars, would rather be playing cricket than going to school, and when they know they’ve done something wrong they’d rather get caught by the police than find themselves within arm’s reach of their mother. What little semblance of order they have in their lives is lost in the instant she is killed in a communal riot. They find themselves homeless and, along with an equally rudderless young girl, Latika, try to scrape together a life on the streets.
Until, that is, their lives are torn asunder at the hands of greed and human depravity of such unimaginable magnitude that they are hard to countenance even on a movie screen. The two boys manage to escape the horror but, in one of the many excruciating scenes in the movie, are forced to leave Latika behind. The rest of the plot revolves around Jamal’s (who, by then, has developed an affection for Latika) relentless attempts to reunite with Latika.
Vikas Swarup’s story is admirable for its ingenuity. The tale is told in a series of flashbacks, each flashback corresponding to a question on the Indian version of the TV game show, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. Jamal is in the hot seat when the movie begins. As each question comes up, we are transported to that part of Jamal’s life that shows us how he came to know the correct answer.
A few seemingly innocuous questions. Answers to which many of us may have acquired in the most pedestrian fashion, through moments whose bearing on our lives, if any at all, is long forgotten. But in Swarup’s hands, they morph into engines of exploration into the human condition. At its heart – a rather enormous, pulsating, mesmerizing vortex of intense feeling and emotion – the story charts the halting advance of grit and determination over bone-crushing poverty and soul-crushing cruelty; the triumph of love and sacrifice over betrayal; the defeat of despair at the hands of hope.
Even as the movie builds to a crescendo of almost unbearable proportions, the audience becomes privy to the way of life on the streets and in the slums of Mumbai. The camera takes an unflinching look at the margins (in some places around the world, rather large margins) of society, at the less than penurious existence just beyond that imaginary border that separates luxury, refinement and culture from deprivation, squalor and filth.
But the camera doesn’t look for the sake of looking, merely to document a way of life, just to titillate the senses. Nor does it merely skim the surface, letting us feel a twinge of pity as most of us are wont to do, safely ensconced behind darkened and raised car windows. It delves deep into the underbelly, into a microcosm with its own complement of needs, wants, desires, joys, disappointments, rules, consequences, and secret passageways to getting out.
And in this, the movie triumphs. Because shorn of its surroundings and the particular circumstances of this plot line, the story still has legs to stand on. This is not merely the story of two boys and a girl from the bowels of Mumbai. This is the story of the heart and soul of Everyboy and Everygirl who live Everywhere determined to face whatever life throws at them. For this reason, I am thrilled that it turned out to be a story set in India. Because, reflected in the shiny glass facades of the new India is this soul-stirring ode to the supremacy of spirit over circumstance – both mirror and reflection, in equal measure, going on to make up the swirling, whirling brew of myriad contradicting ideas, philosophies and ways of life; both equally India, but neither having sole rights to the whole.
As for the cast, the three sets of kids do a wonderful job of portraying Jamal, Salim and Latika at various stages. Irrfan Khan is wasted in the role of the inspector interrogating Jamal on charges of cheating on the quiz show. Anil Kapoor as the sleazy game show host made me want to wring his hairy neck, so he must have done a good job. A.R. Rahman’s music is poignant and evokes a foot-tapping fervor in all the right places.
Finally, I’m not sure if Swarup or the movie makers were aware of this, but the song, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which was the inspiration for the title of the original game show series, goes like this:
Who wants to be a millionaire?
I don’t. ‘Cause all I want is you.
Fitting lyrics for Jamal, who only goes on the show as a way to reach Latika, who doesn’t know the answer to the last question and doesn’t really care as long as he can find her.
This movie, like the book Shantaram, just by being searingly honest in its telling of its story is one that will stick with me for a long time.
Slumdog, 120 minutes, is rated ‘R’ in the US. It is not appropriate for children. One family found out the hard way after they got to the theater with two young children – they got up and left about less than a third into the movie.