Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire" is all too timely now

After I saw "Slumdog Millionaire" today, including the spectacular closing credits choreography, performed in a Mumbai train station, led by star Dev Patel (as Jamal Malik) and Latika (Freida Pinto), I got back to my car and turned on the classical station radio and, in the drizzle, listened to the crowning choral passages of Bach’s B Minor Mass. It seemed that that would have worked at the very end of the credits, in this “feel good” layered story, that takes us through all the castes and squalor of Indian society as its people out hustle us in a global workplace.

In fact, in the “middle” of the film, there’s a great scene in an Indian call center, where Jamal manipulates his way through a situation. It kind of frames the entire point of the film.

Well, I get ahead of myself. Danny Boyle co-directs with Indian Loveleen Tandan, an adaptation by Simon Beaufoy of the novel by Vikas Swarup. The ambitious film is aimed at the “indie” market and distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, but Warner Brothers (the real thing (not "just" Warner Independent Pictures) with its Casablanca introduction) is on there too (probably for International release), and the two production companies Celador and Film 4 are at the heart of Britain’s film business.

The film came out in early November, but it has become timely given the tragedy in Mumbai Nov. 26. The film opens up in the second half, showing us panoramic views of all the new condo development there, on top of the old shantytowns (which we see plenty of), as well as the mass of poverty. We get a visual sense of how India is emerging, and how social tensions play out. That, of course, brings us to the story.

Jamal is on a streak on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” very much taunted by the host. Each question leads back to an earlier boyhood episode where he needed to develop his street smarts to survive in the squalor, as a "slumdog". His only reason to be on the show is to be seen and recognized by his lost love, but he answers the questions by reviewing his own life, escaping the crooked schemes of relatives. So his life becomes the story, leading up to the climax on the last question. The (multiple choice) questions refer specifically to subject matter about India; many Americans would not be able to answer them.

The film begins with the cops dragging him in to a torture and electrical prodding rendition scene (which is quite harrowing) since he is suspected of cheating or, worse, of being part of some kind of corruption undermining the show. He just wants to get back to his "love." That will come out in the back story plot as it unfolds.

Patel pulls off the role with great charisma. Particularly interesting is his ability to control the mood on the quiz show itself. He could get an Oscar nod for this film, and at 18 be one of the youngest ever best actors ever.

Update: Jan. 12, 2009

This film won the Golden Globe award for best dramatic picture. Also, Access Hollywood reports that Warner Independent Pictures was supposed to be the distributor, but Warner Brothers closed the sub-studio, along with New Line and Picturehouse in 2008 (check the stories on Imdbpro). However, New Line (planning "The Hobbit") still has an active website, and so does Picturehouse; and WIP still has a shell with nothing on it. Corporations rarely get rid of their brands entirely, because trademark law encourages them to protect them. In fact, lawyers are likely to tell WB to start using them again just to protect them from any attempts at dilution. These are great movie brands and retiring them makes no business sense at all. Expect to see all these labels back. (Newmarket Films ("Memento") got lost in all of this, too.) I don't know why the regular WB studio didn't want full distribution rights to the film. Fox Searchlight (from the "evil" "conservative" News Corp.) hit a home run by picking up this gem of a film, and Warner Brothers really blew it. The Washington Times ought to have fun with this one.

Dev Patel appeared on "Ellen" on Jan. 14, 2009.

Update: Feb. 22

The movie won Best Picture at the Oscars and many other awards. The song and Bollywood dance "Jai Ho" was performed at the ceremony and the next day on Oprah.

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