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SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE - An Indian Story

Ranjita Biswas, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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view SLUMDOG MOLLIONAIRE movie poster
view SLUMDOG MOLLIONAIRE movie poster
Which underdog doesn't want to become a millionaire? In British director Danny Boyle's SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, he is Jamal from the slums of Mumbai. The film made a stunning impact at the recent Toronto Film Festival.

Living in a slum and earning of millions? Whom are you kidding? Well, if it's a plucky kid like orphan Jamal who grows up in abject poverty in the slums, but still makes million, you have to believe it. Because that's how typical rags to riches stories are churned out by Bollywood with the mandatory happy ending with the lady-love in tow.

But suppose this Bollywood story theme is adopted with a twist by a western director like Danny Boyle, the well-known independent British filmmaker, what do you get? A winner like SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE that wowed the audience during its official launch at the recently concluded 33rd Toronto Film Festival. So much so that it won the Cadillac People's Choice Award indisputably.

Boyle turns a Mumbaikar's story aspiring to rise above the circumstances into a funny, sardonic, tragi-comic narration moving at a break-neck speed through the travails of Jamal. Boyle's earlier films like TRAINSPOTTING on a group of heroin-addicted youths, 28 DAYS LATER, a sci-fi film, among others, made him almost a cult figure. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE adds another feather in his cap.

For an Indian audience, the format of the film is instantly recognizable: the extremely popular television game show sometime ago, Kaun Banega Crorepati, the Indian version of UK's Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The screenplay is loosely based on diplomat Vikas Swarup's debut novel Q & A. In the book, Ram Mohammad Thomas,18, is arrested by the police on a complaint by the producers of the game show. As they reason, how come a mere waiter from the slums could answer all the questions correctly and hit the jackpot? He must have had cheated. Swarup begins his book tellingly: 'I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show. They came for me late last night, when even the stray dogs had gone off to sleep…There was no hue and cry...Arrests in Dharavi are as common as pickpockets on the local train.'

In the film, Jamal, the chai-walla, is the prototype of Ram Mohammad Thomas. He and his brother Salim, get orphaned during the Bombay riots and become street urchins- 'slumdogs'. His long journey to survive in the metropolis and outside might seem unreal to an audience familiar with the Taj Mahal (it features in the film too), Gateway of India or the glittering lifestyle of the modern Indian city. But to us, it's not so strange. The world of slums and poverty, the adulation for stars like the Big B in this scenario, the desperation to survive against huge odds, in short, portraits of the underbelly of 'shining' cities, is not too far from our consciousness.

view SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE movie stills

view SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE movie stills

The characters inhabiting this world are familiar too - the so-called do-gooders on the prowl looking for displaced kids and in the name of giving food and shelter, disfiguring them to turn into street-side beggars, little girls plucked to convert them into nautch girls, Mafia dons exploiting poor boys to groom them for the henchman's job, as Salim becomes in the unforgiving world.

But Jamal does not give in so easily. So he slogs. The soft corner for little Latika, an orphan like him, and taken away by the evil 'charity-giving' gang also remains though he has lost touch with her.

But the film's strength is in looking at life with a lot of humour, and saluting the resilience of the human spirit. The same resilience that makes Jamal shun the kind of violent lifestyle Salim chooses, the same steadfastness that makes him hope to meet Latika one day because he realizes he loves her, and a doggedness that makes him enter the KBC show on a fluke.

Understandably, anyone would wonder how could a tea-vendor without a formal education stand up to the scrutiny of the sophisticated show's host. Well, for most Indians who believe in bhagya- fate, it can happen. After all, every question asked in the show happens to have a relevance to Jamal's conflicting past- the make of a gun, the pictures on a dollar bill (he and his gang conned American tourists at the Taj Mahal blithely), and so on. And so he wins.

The brilliant touch is in the Q & A sessions when the viewers in every other Indian household wait breathlessly for the answer to come along. And when it's correct, they jump with joy. For isn't it a dream of every man on the street to win that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Jamal reflects their aspirations. He keeps their hope afloat.

view SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE movie stills

view SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE movie stills

Jamal also manages to find Latika in a don's den and Salim, a changed man, helps to set her free. At the end of the show Jamal and Latika are united again through the ubiquitous cell-phone (KBC's helpline?). As the curtain came down with Jamal and Latika doing the happy-ending Bollywood film scene dancing exuberantly complete with extras, on a Mumbai railway station platform, the audience in many screenings in Toronto stood up applauding, and honestly a few even did a jig keeping with the tune. The energy of the story is unmistakable.

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is shot in real locale- India, uses local colour, has an all Indian cast, and displays an understanding of local nuances. And it works. Youngsters like Dev Patel, Madhuri Mittal, Freida Pinto stand their ground with veterans like Irrfan Khan and Anil Kapoor (the host of the show). Above all, it is a look at life in the multi-hued country without being judgmental, as happens sometimes with filmmakers from the West.



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