Apr 7, 2011

F is for Film Review Paper: Slumdog Millionaire

I cannot believe I am posting this...

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was busy writing a million papers and that one of them was for Film class. Here's the paper:

Hindered by my ignorance, I had previously thought the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire was just another movie out of Bollywood. In fact, I equated it to Bride and Prejudice (2004), which let’s face it, was a zany, watered down feel-good attempt at showing the rest of the world the integrity of Indian films. Bride and Prejudice failed miserably at its attempt, but Slumdog Millionaire transcended genres and blew me away. Danny Boyle, who has a raft of seriously effed up films, had just the right amount of genius and audacity in his director’s repertoire to bring the story of a stray dog boy to the big screen. Jamal Malik, and his brother Salim, watch their mother die as a result of the centuries old Arab/Hindi conflict in India. The boys run through the lanes and corridors of their Indian slum, meet up with another recently orphaned girl, and escape to the outskirts of their shanty town. Despite the growing animosity and competition between the brothers, they band together for survival’s sake, and accept the girl, Latika, creating The Three Musketeers.
Fiercely edited by Chris Dickens, Slumdog Millionaire gives us a cause and effect presentation: Jamal receives a question while sitting in the hot-seat on the set of India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and we are sent back in time to Jamal as a child or into the future to Jamal as an arrestee following accusations that he cheated on his first episode of the show. Though the editing was jagged, it was not painful to watch. In fact, the constant change in stimuli kept my keen interest for the film’s entire runtime of 121 minutes (including the entertaining credits.) With a myriad of storylines, Dickens gave the viewer a unified film through dramatic focus and varying points of view. Never did I find myself confused by the non-chronological sequence of events.
Equally as impressive as the editing was the performance style from a cast of names I had never heard of. Dev Patel (Jamal), Freida Pinto (Latika), and Madhur Mittal (Sarim) give us three dimensional characters, full of faults, but also resolve. It helped that they fit the profile of someone living in India. The situations Jamal survives as a child inadvertently provide him with the answers to the questions he faces as a contestant on the game show. The answers show up in minute details or some seemingly trivial lines his enemies say, but end up engraved in Jamal’s brain. And the disturbing positions Jamal finds himself in as a child – a street peddler working for a slumlord, for instance – prepare him for the camera and light-filled pressures of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? stage (and the brutal interrogation he faces after correctly answering twelve questions, which elicits suspicion of cheating). It’s the defense of their own lives that constantly breaks up the Three Musketeers, and causes the viewer to come to conclusions that make little sense. If I thought I had it all figured out, Boyle would pull me out of the present and give me more pieces of the past that muddled my perception. And Patel as the contestant and the detainee, pale in comparison to the love-driven boy who fights to win back his girl, Latika, multiple times.
Though the theme, “it’s destiny”, is indeed strong in Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle does not fool us into thinking that it is the film’s prevailing force. “Love conquers all” may be too strong of a title to put on the dynamic between Jamal and Latika, but the energy between the two characters appropriately fills the multiple storylines of the film.
The lighting used in the film placates to the emotion on the actors’ faces. Realistic lightning, like the harsh spotlights of the slums contrast with neon lights of inner Mumbai – both cast upon a ruthless landscape. Pictorial lighting makes a dramatic presence in the film. A couple of times, soft light is sent through a cloud of dust or smoke to make a time transition. While this seems to be commonplace in a meathead action film, the way it is done in Slumdog Millionaire is artistic. The lighting is almost a character in the film, as it is a strong presence in the plot.
If lighting is almost a character, then the music is a main character. A.R. Rahman’s score for the film reaches audiences across the world, but never strays far from Mumbai. With traditional filmi music – classical Indian music written for the cinema with the intention of becoming popular – mixed with hip hop and dance music from the United States and the United Kingdom, the soundtrack for Slumdog Millionaire is upbeat, poignant, and devastating all at the same time. A previously favorite song of mine, “Paper Planes”, plays during a scene that involves Jamal and Samil train hopping and stealing food to survive. It is during this scene they further their skills as peddlers on their way to teenhood to the tune of guns clicking and money cha-chinging. The score highlights the constant struggles of survival the protagonists face, but it reprises the giddy feelings at all the right spots. And despite this, the Bollywood-influenced film score is never too festive or jovial for the distressed film.
Critics adored Slumdog Millionaire across the board and the film won eight Oscars, including Best Picture of 2009. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times was most impressed with the directing of the film, for which Boyle earned an Oscar for Best Achievement in Directing. In her review, Dargis references Trainspotting, which epitomizes Boyle’s bizarre sense of humor, and strange way of making an upbeat story out of desolation. He keeps the trend going with Slumdog Millionaire, in Dargis’s opinion. She says, “[Slumdog Millionaire] proves to be one of the most upbeat stories about living in hell imaginable.” Dargis also talks about the cinematography, stating the film is “Beautifully shot with great sensitivity to color…Slumdog Millionaire makes for a better viewing experience than it does for a reflective one.”
Dargis gave one bit of criticism by wondering if the whole account is too convenient and contrived. She said, “…its joyfulness feels more like a filmmaker’s calculation than an honest cry from the heart about the human spirit (or, better yet, a moral tale).” But despite Boyle’s buoyant layer, Dargis felt the film was extremely successful, and that Boyle’s seasoned directing skills made the difference.
Peter Traverse of Rolling Stone agreed with Manohla Dargis on many points, calling Boyle the MVP among many talented crewmembers. He adored the upbeat feeling of the film and the musical score. Also similar to Dargis, Traverse questioned the sequence of events and said, “the concept bends coincidence to the breaking point.”
I have to admit, I felt the same way as the two critics: the sequential events were, at times, too expedient. But despite the nonpragmatic storyline, Slumdog Millionaire is a gorgeous example of filmmaking. Before viewing the film, Danny Boyle was just an eccentric, out-of-the-box director in my mind. But now, I see him as an artist and intense director. He pulled off a masterpiece that eclipses any other film I have seen in the last few years. It seems Boyle is a trifecta of talent, and he knows how to pick ‘em: A.R. Rahman for the score, Anthony Dod Mantle for cinematography, and Chris Dickens for editing; all of whom Dargis and Traverse cited as excellent. The cast, a strange mix of small screen veterans and child actors, blew me away. Each cast member fit his or her part like a glove. I believed in Jamal for the entire film, and that is rare for me. I tend to be cynical and reproachful, especially in melodramatic instances. But, while the critics seemed to equate the viewing experience of Slumdog Millionaire to sucking a lollipop while high, I found it to be a reminder of the need for empathy and understanding. The human experience is more than an abstract painting of bright, swirling colors, and Boyle delved past the goop. I have adjusted my expectations accordingly for his next work.

And because I know you'll ask - the grade:

Anita has interviewed Chris Rylander at her middle grade blog. It's short and funny, check it out!


  1. I loved Slumdog Millionaire, it was a great story done with exceptional cinematography.

  2. You, my friend, are AWESOME. Good for you, and excellent paper!!!

  3. Well, of course! Great job--I'm embarrassed to say I haven't seen the movie, but now I'll put it on my netflix. :) Have a great day!

  4. I liked SLUMDOG, but I did think it was a bit conventional. I did love Dev Patel's performance and can't wait to see him in more films, especially in MARIGOLD HOTEL. The year when it was released also had THE READER and BENJAMIN BUTTON which were much more powerful and serious films, especially the first one. I wish we had more such Oscar years :(

  5. All I can say is WOW!!! Very impressed and proud of you friend!

  6. Wow! I guess I am going to have to rent Slum Dog this weekend. Fabulous paper, and even better the comments from the teacher! Bravo! Bravo! Now, do it again. Do it again.

  7. I really enjoyed Slumdog Millionaire. Way to go on your paper.

  8. Woo-hoo! And I agree with your teacher. :)

    Okay, I guess I will have to see this movie now. I'll add it to my Netflix queue.

  9. That was great, Jon. You deserved that 100. Congrats!

  10. Great work and great movie :) I just graduated...not sure I miss the paper madness. But good luck!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  11. SLUMDOG is an amazing work of art. There's nothing like it.

  12. Yea on your grade! You deserved it. And that's a great review of SLUMDOG. I was glad I saw it. And it brought back memories of being in India.

  13. Nice notes on the grade! YAY. :)
    I'm a new follower from the a-z challenge. Nice to meet you!

  14. Visiting and following from the A-Z Challenge :-)

  15. JONATHON: I hope you have that note on a wall somewhere! YOU are an incredible piece of work!

  16. Fantastic paper, Jon.

    I love 80% of Boyle's work. I just wish he'd learn how to finish a movie. He's the king of the weak 3rd act.