Sunday, March 1, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Worth the Wait

If I didn’t know the box-office numbers, I’d think I was the last person in America to have seen Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's multi-Oscar-winning movie. Judging by the size of the crowd at a Saturday afternoon showing outside Boston, I guess there were a fair number of us who waited until after the Academy Awards. I don’t know about all those other people, but I for one had been wary of the movie’s relentless hype until the goodwill became too much for me to ignore. All those happy people in their seats—but mostly at the podium—at the Oscars, and all those people who voted for the film and cheered for its success: so many people can’t be wrong, can they?

Well, they can, but not in the case of this movie. There are many reasons to like Slumdog Millionaire, and to have chosen it the best picture among the Oscar nominees—and some of these reasons even have to do with what is actually on the screen. First, the camerawork: it is sure of itself and it has something to say, and that is a combination that we don’t always find in a movie. In some films, we get a camera that is more full of itself than sure, moving around in artsy ways that have no relation to the content on screen. In others, we get a camera that just doesn’t do much of anything at all. It’s as if no one was actually making the film—and I’m not talking about auteurs who are trying to make a statement about unmediated reality. Slumdog Millionaire gets it right.

Anthony Dod Mantle uses quick cuts and tilted angles, emphasizing at one moment the angular geometry of a world (trains, empty skyscrapers, and highway underpasses) that doesn’t bother to accommodate the people in it, and at another the jumbled and cramped spaces that have been fashioned by the people themselves, as they pile shack upon shack to create their homes amid the squalor of Mumbai. But his talents don’t stop there. To set a different mood, he gives us an extended sequence of the young brothers Jamal and Salim aboard (but more accurately atop) trains after they escape from a Fagin-like impresario of beggars. I’ve seen that whole Guy on a Train thing many times before (even in Get Smart), but nothing beats the wide-angle shots of two tiny figures on the train’s roof as it crosses the Indian countryside.

Actually, something does: the very first chase scene, in which the two brothers and a crowd of other children are chased away from an airport-runway cricket game. There is something about the way that Mantle films the two children in motion, interrupting an action-film style of cuts with overhead or wide-angle shots, that sets the boys as insignificant in the larger context while at the same time intensely connecting us to them as individuals. I would argue that it is the most moving set of images in the film.

There are other reasons people like the movie, though, and they have very little to do with what is on screen. First of all, we love underdog stories. And this is an upbeat version of the classic type. Jamal Malik is the underdog who has picked up enough intelligence and information along the way to make himself a success in a world he is not a part of. He’s not unlike the character played by Isla Fisher in Confessions of A Shopaholic, or by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. These are all outsiders whose unconventional route to insight and information allow them to win over the hearts and minds of the people in power.

Jamal’s underdog run at the big prize mimics the brilliant career of the film itself. Doyle shows us crowds gathered in Mumbai, outside the Taj Mahal, in the slums, cheering Jamal on as he faces his final question. Substitute the Oscars broadcast with the movie’s game show and you have the same scenes: people gathered around television screens, hoping for the success of the Indian underdog. (And who doesn’t want to like India these days? Even before the terrorist attacks, it had become our favorite developing country.) You could say that Boyle’s movie contains the instructions for its own viewing: Love the Underdog.

At the end of the day, does it matter whether the appeal of Slumdog Millionaire comes from the movie itself or from the circumstances of its viewing? On an intellectual level, the answer must be yes. Years from now, when people aren’t awash in the goodwill generated by this particular Oscar season, the movie will have to stand on its own. The thing is, it does. When the movie ended, I was momentarily surprised to find myself in a cinema on a brisk New England evening. Thanks to Danny Boyle, I had been very far away indeed.

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