‘Millionaire’ Director Rolls Eastern Romance at the Pace of Mind

    Slumdog Millionaire
    {grate 4.5}
    Starring Madhur Mittal, Dev Patel, Freida Pinto
    Directed by Danny Boyle, Loveleen Tandan
    Rated R

    Avibrant projection of Western fable onto Eastern landscape, “Slumdog Millionaire” paws at the groundwork of a rags-to-rajah melodrama with the dogged intent to uproot Hollywood’s narrative conventions. Starry-eyed orphan Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) ventures onto India’s wildly popular rendition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and, one question away from total domination and 20 million rupees, harnesses the show’s publicity to reconnect with his lost childhood love.

    The opening scene — 18-year-old Jamal stepping onto the show’s set with interpolated images of his torture — guts the happy-go-lucky aesthetic of the game show’s premise. Asking “what the hell [can] a slumdog possibly know,” the police (led by Irrfan Khan of “The Namesake”) accuse Jamal of fraud. A vulnerability belies his resolution as Jamal defends his innocence and explains, by regressing to abject childhood, exactly how he knows the answers.

    Thrusting the frame into the present and snapping it back to the past, the film’s abandonment of linear time elicits thrilling whiplash — a kind of enigma that reflects director Danny Boyle’s own character.

    “The story’s obviously built on memories, and you’d normally call them flashbacks, but they’re not written like flashbacks,” he said. “It just goes back and forwards freely. You just accept it as all being now, and that’s how memories are like — how they roll through your brain.”

    Joie de vivre arises from hellish ghettos (so goes the film’s mantra), but at a heavy cost. Within the labyrinth of corrugated tin rooftops and the stupor of intoxicating smog develops Jamal’s rift with his corrupt older brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal). What ensues is the emergence of an Eastern Cain-and-Abel story, and Boyle readily admits “a lot of the Bollywood storytelling is based on absolute classic storytelling techniques.”

    Captivated by Jamal is his burgeoning infatuation with orphan-turned-concubine Latika (Freida Pinto). Jamal has always been adamant (as a 7-year-old, he caked himself in poo for an autograph) and his passion for Latika compels him to brave the capitalist snares of modern Mumbai on the televised show so that she may see him.

    In their deft transposition of Vikas Swarup’s novel “Q & A,” Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy whisk together a blend of juxtaposed themes, seasoned with humor — commercial wealth, darkened by poverty and tainted by sexual abuse. In maintaining the Eastern motif, they appeal to a yin-yang philosophy.

    At once panning across the game show’s dark, minimalist set, the kinetics of documentary-style camerawork then accelerate to capture teeming Mumbai alleyways. Boyle effectively becomes our tour guide as we scope, for the price of a theater ticket, the visually stunning and sonically mesmerizing Indian landscape — tacky tourist sites and all.

    A.R. Rahman’s electronic soundtrack blends Euro-house with traditional Indian strings, similarly multi-linking the foreign kaleidoscope of colored garb and panorama of skyscrapers.
    “India’s a very romantic place,” said Boyle of his filming environment and its people. “Ironically, given the poverty, it’s a very passionate place. You can say that technically [people in India’s slums] are poor, but they don’t feel poor. They’re aspirational. They’re very community-organized. They look after each other.”

    In filming on location over three months with only $13 million, Boyle relinquishes the usual epicenter of his craft: control.

    “The sense of movement [in India’s population] creates and the change, the constant change, is enormous,” he said. “You have to respond to reality, rather than going with a rigid idea for a film.”

    And respond he did. Discovering that native child actors lacked English-speaking skills induced rewriting the first third of the film’s script and shooting it in Hindi with the addition of subtitles.

    Two-thirds into the film, however, “Slumdog” finds itself entangled in the puppy pound of cliche love, as deus ex machina belittles Jamal and Latika’s otherwise volatile relationship to that of familiar star-crossed lovers. Perhaps the abandonment of its brilliant child actors, free of inhibition, furthers the film’s plight. In older age, Latika supposedly adopts a rigid exoskeleton, hardened by childhood adversities, but Pinto proves little more than a pretty face and damsel in distress.

    Meanwhile, Jamal is an atypical hero, physically lanky and reticent in his personality. His vulnerability renders his character all the more palpable and reflects the authenticity Boyle chases.

    “The mission was to [make the film] as subjectively as possible,” Boyle said. “And I figured the only way you could really do it was to just throw people in there. Make it on the streets — as real as possible. Don’t try to organize it or control it too much because it’ll look like you are manipulating it … You’ve always got to try to see it from inside the characters rather than bring a lot of your Western baggage with it.”

    A mixed breed of Dickensian plotlines and Bollywood glamour, “Slumdog Millionaire” translates the addiction of America’s beloved game show into the tension of an Easterner’s coming of age. How so? It walks tactfully on a tightrope above age-old storytelling, wobbling only in the end. Pulled on one side by escapist tendencies and on other with unsympathetic realism, it strides gracefully from one genre to the next. Final answer.

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