Thursday, December 6, 2012

Cinema 2009: slum schooled

From the detail of the close-up to the grandeur of the sweeping expanse, "Slumdog Millionaire," which garnered eight Oscars in 2009, is beautiful, breathtaking, and heartbreaking.

Shot on locations in India, the incredible variety of images, patterns and shadows, at the same time familiar and foreign, are utterly compelling. It is genius filmmaking by directors Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, not least of all because their efforts are put to use in order to reveal human dignity and beauty in the portrayal of the main characters Jamal (Dev Patel) and Latika (Freida Pinto).

The story centers on teenager Jamal, a "slumdog" or child of a Mumbai ghetto, who lands a spot on the Indian version of the TV game show "Who wants to be a millionaire." When Jamal surprises the show's conceited host with correct answers, the quizmaster (who bears an uncanny and unflattering resemblance to Dennis Miller) suspects a scam and has Jamal arrested. As the young man explains to police precisely which life lessons taught him each answer, we learn from those flashbacks the tragic story of a so-called slumdog, one of the countless ghetto children forced to eke out a dirty and dire existence on the fringes of a ruthless and indifferent world.

Scenes from Jamal's past are intercut with his appearance on the game show and his interrogation by police. The cops use that well known double team: bad cop and worse cop. But brutality at the hands of Mumbai's Finest does not make much of an impression on Jamal, who has survived the great hardships and ignominy that society piles upon its outcasts, and who no doubt only expects more of the same.

The film shows us life in the landfills, slums and shantytowns of the subcontinent. Despite those unbelievable conditions, there exists a positive energy among the slum kids that testifies to their humanity and resilience. That beaming ethos infects the entire film with an upbeat sense of outlandish hope.

As the adventures unfold, viewers are swept up in disparate facets of contemporary Indian life.

"Slumdog Millionaire" brings to the screen the rhythms of modern Mumbai thanks in great part to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, film editor Chris Dickens, and an original score by A.R. Rahman. In one particular scene, a haunting soundtrack reinforces a panorama of slums framed like a postcard from hell.

Eventually the tale focuses on a romance unlikely to succeed. Jamal has the defiance of the outsider and the suspicious nature of the kicked dog. But his features take on an angelic quality as his love for Latika helps him transcend the baser instincts much in evidence around him. His close boyhood friend Salim has chosen another direction, repaying blood with blood and building his own material world on that crimson wash.

Latika is held up to the camera as an examplar of sublime female beauty. Even the sadistic men who exploit her cannot detract from the ideal she embodies. We come to view her as Jamal does, so that rather than despoil her beauty, a vengefully inflicted knife scar serves rather to symbolize — like the track of a tear — her unfulfilled love.

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