Saturday, December 13, 2008

Oliver Twist Lives in Mumbai

Most of us know about a "rags to riches story"...someone who comes from the lowest rung of the social ladder climbs to the top through faith, hard work, and luck. It happens all the time in the U-S and even England.

But India...not so much. When someone is born at a certain level of the social ladder, climbing to the top isn't expected to happen.

Consider Jamal. He's on the verge of winning the top prize in the Indian verson of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire. How could be do it?

A. He cheated
B. He's lucky
C. He's a genius
D. It is written

That's how Slumdog Millionaire begins, with Jamal being interrogated by the cops in such a rough matter, people may think they're actually seeing Rendition. They think the right answer is "A", because slumdogs aren't supposed to be so smart. Well, Jamal got his education through the School of Hard Knocks, and got a Ph.D. The movie jumps from his appaearance on the show, the police asking him how he got those questions right, and his life overall.

When we meet him and his brother Salim, they're a couple of mischevious kids who do what they can to survive. They are orphaned after their mom is killed by rioters. From then on, they are on their own. They are soon joined by a scappy girl named Latika, who would soon be part of their lives for some time. What they do for money and food isn't exactly legal, but it's all they have. When they are found by an "orphanage" which is really run by an Indian version of Fagan, Jamal narrowly escapes being a blind beggar. Circumstances split the two brothers and Latika, as they try to find their place in the world. As we see Jamal's story, we understand he's had an unusual education. So unusual, in fact, even the cops are skeptical, but they stay for the end.

Throughout the movie, Jamal is always looked upon as a slumdog, or even lower. His so-called betters, gangsters, cops or the pompous game show host (especially the host...keep an eye on how he deals with Jamal), push him around. Jamal learns to survive, even with help from Salim after he hooks up with a gangster who's in the middle of India's redevelopment.

A few things: Dev Patel was great as the adult Jamal, but the younger versions of Jamal, Salim and Latika are also very compelling. In fact, Latika was more interesting as a kid rather than an adult. While a tough life helped Jamal get strong, it may have worn down Latika too much. Also, the questions Jamal has to answer for the higher awards are a bit tricky, but even I could have answered the last one. The big climax is also a bit contrived, but it still worked. This is Bollywood made for American movie fans, right down to the traditional dance number.

But could it be Best Picture material come Oscar time? I think it could make the final cut, and would be a strong candidate for Adapted Screenplay or Best Director. It just depends on what's coming next, and there are a lot of good candidates. I am looking forward to seeing Doubt next week in San Francisco, followed by Frost/Nixon, Benjamin Button and The Wrestler. It will be a good time to go to the big screen.

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