With Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle hasn’t just finally made his grand romance (something he’s wanted to do since A Life Less Ordinary–this time without the “acting” stylings of Miss Cameron Diaz), or given cinema its first great mainstream romance in nine years, he’s also made the best adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel (even if it’s a novel Dickens never actually wrote). I haven’t read Slumdog‘s source novel, so I don’t know if the Dickens references originated there or if screenwriter Simon Beaufoy contributed them. For whatever reason (lack of reference to them on the novel’s wikipedia page and author’s website), I’m going to attribute these inclusions to Beaufoy.
The result–a modern day, pop culture Dickensian something or other. Boyle uses the story’s Indian setting to confound the viewer–I wonder how it plays to Indians and those familiar with the culture–because there’s such a disconnect between the main character’s youth and the modern story. But Boyle also uses a fractured narrative to further confuse the viewer. This structure turns Slumdog into a police investigation from the viewer’s perspective–he or she is going in without the necessary information, which is the norm, but the protagonist is the suspect. As the film opened and the structure presented itself, I got worried–extremely fearful, actually–of a Usual Suspects twist at the end.
At some point, that fear went away. Maybe it was the multi-layered narrative and my developing trust in Boyle. As a filmmaker, Boyle manages to earn a huge amount of trust with every project (well, post-Beach) and then, on his next project, cash it all in and start over.
And Slumdog Millionaire starts accruing early on. Once the structure’s clear–adult protagonist Dev Patel being questioned by Irrfan Khan about winning “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” with flashbacks to his youth–Boyle gets extremely playful. All of the flashbacks are about the young version of Patel, played by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, and his brother Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (at the furthest back flashback). Here’s where Slumdog whacks the (presumably) Western viewer with a cricket bat. Slumdog‘s presentation of India–from a Western director and a Western studio… I can’t believe anyone signed the filming permits. It’s an unending horror. The respites the viewer gets are usually due to–with the occasional humorous aside–returning to the present. Boyle smartly (big shock) opens with one of the funniest scenes in the film, which takes gross-out humor to the pages of The New Yorker.
The film quickly develops into a fated romance between Patel and, in the present, Freida Pinto. Because Patel is so centrally the lead, there’s a real connection between him and the actors playing his younger selfs (Khedekar and Tanay Chheda–Boyle’s transition from flashback period to flashback period is singular). Slumdog revolves around him. And if it isn’t revolving around him, it’s around his brother–Ismail has the flashiest flashback period, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala (I guess he’s pretty flashy too) plays him in the middle and Madhur Mittal as the adult. If it weren’t for Pinto, Mittal would have the hardest role in the film, due to his character’s arc. But Pinto–she’s got to be flawless in every scene. As a kid, she’s played by Rubiana Ali, who earns all the viewer’s regard. Ali does a great job, but she’s a precocious kid. It’s a little easier than showing up for one shot and having to be the end all, be all of a two hour motion picture, which Pinto does. Even harder for Pinto is when she finally becomes a big character–she can’t have a false move, because the viewer has to believe in Patel’s devotion to her… otherwise it doesn’t work. And Pinto makes it work.
As for Boyle, his direction is amazing. It deserves a lot more attention than I could give it here and a lot more recognition. Slumdog‘s music is essential (from A.R. Rahman), perfectly integrated with Boyle’s sensibilities. To sum up Boyle’s direction… during the first flashback–Slumdog‘s use of subtitles is ingenious (I hope they keep it for the DVD), sorry, tangent–I wondered how Boyle looked at the script for the sequence and somehow came up with what I was watching. I couldn’t imagine how his brain processed the script, how he imagined the shots. He’s an exceptional director.
The film’s relationship with the viewer is where I’ll exit (and where the film exits too). Slumdog Millionaire has a first person narrator who isn’t on screen. It’s the film itself.
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