Blu-ray Review: Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

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A. R. Rahman, Sukhvinder Singh, Tanvi Shah & Mahalaxmi Iyer - Slumdog Millionaire (Music from the Motion Picture)

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“The book reveals Mumbai as a city in fast-forward. It's like a Dickensian London brought into the 21st century. It's rapidly developing. The poor are poorer than ever before. The rich are richer than ever before. And there's this mass of people in the middle, trying to force their way up. It's a fantastic setting for a fairytale.”
-- Oscar Winning Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy
(As quoted in the Production Notes for Slumdog Millionaire, based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup)

And luckily for The Full Monty screenwriter Simon Beaufoy-- Slumdog producer Christian Colson also agreed with his assessment of diplomat turned first time novelist Vikas Swarup, by noting that in Beaufoy’s hands, the work became, “a fairytale and like all the best fairytales, it has moments of real darkness and horror. It's a story that will make you laugh, cry and often gasp.”

The ultimate tale of an underdog or in the term coined by Beaufoy-- “slumdog”-- the film that went on to win eight Academy Awards including Best Picture seemed to offer an instant appeal, catharsis, and fascination for all who came into contact with it, beginning with UK’s Channel 4 head of film and drama Tessa Ross who first caught a glimpse of Swarup’s work in manuscript form.

Curiously, one of the very few dark and intense films to garner support with the movie-going public around the globe, earning the praise of film critics and casual film fans alike in a sea of late fall/early winter 2008 extremely bleak Oscar bait and it's one that is even more of an international surprise since it’s largely filled with subtitles which historically the American ticket buying public usually avoids in droves. Still, there was just something about this particular film that broke boundaries and director Danny Boyle’s epic Slumdog Millionaire seemed to have been made and released at exactly the right time in history.

As we are currently all enduring what can essentially be dubbed a second “great depression,” it’s no wonder that escapist movie fare like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Fast and the Furious, Monsters vs. Aliens, and far more recently Hannah Montana: The Movie has ruled at the box office so far in 2009 but despite the fact that Slumdog opens in rather extreme circumstances as our protagonist is viciously tortured and Boyle’s film contains some extremely horrific situations,at its core, there is a true and instantly relatable heart that beats throughout its entire running time.

Instead of simply forcing violence or incredibly depressing twists and turns at the audience in the hopes of drumming up award momentum (for example—just how many films nominated for Oscars, Independent Spirit Awards, and Golden Globes should actually offer viewers a free prescription of Prozac with the purchase of a ticket?), Beaufoy and Boyle craft an inspiring tale of how even the promise of love can keep one strong.

Additionally, throughout the work, they celebrate the mind-boggling ability of human nature to bounce back from one unbelievable hardship to the next by giving us a character that never gives in, waits for either a handout or some divine intervention but instead manages to create his own opportunities all the while without sacrificing his moral center and innate goodness. Likewise, instead of yet another work about family dysfunction or selfish, self-obsessed WASPS, the multifaceted narrative woven throughout the film that goes back and forth in time perfectly complements Danny Boyle’s mesmerizing direction.

It is book-ended by a present day suspenseful arc as Jamal (played by British actor Dev Patel from TV’s Skins) is tortured and interrogated due to his unprecedented success on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Convinced that a young “ignorant” boy from the slums who serves tea in a call center has somehow cheated his way into the position of being one question away from earning 20,000 rupees, Jamal persuades the head inspector (The Namesake’s Irrfan Khan) into his belief that you don't need to be a genius to win. Instead, he tells the inspector how and why he knew each and every answer asked on the show in a series of flashbacks that make up the story of his life so far at the age of eighteen. While the storytelling frame device is nothing new—the way it all is put together is simply hypnotic.

Shortly after it begins, Boyle leads us into the epic fairytale of Jamal who—following the murder of his mother in a religiously motivated attack as a young boy—struggles to survive alongside his street-smart older brother Salim and later, their beautiful orphaned “third musketeer” Latika who instantly captures Jamal’s heart in one of the most breathtaking scenes in the film as we first see her alone in the rain.

Soon we follow them as they make their way from one misfortune to the next including being “rescued” by what they assume is a quality orphanage only to learn that it’s a far more dangerous and Dickensian place where cruel adults blind children and force them to sing and beg for money. And while Jamal and Salim manage to escape, the increasingly aggressive Salim lets go of Latika’s hand in a haunting shot that sets up the rest of Jamal’s plight to be reunited with the girl he loves.

Caring less about the money from Millionaire and instead more about the chance that perhaps Latika would see him on television and—after a series of tragedies and missed opportunities—finally be able to be together permanently, Jamal’s tale is compelling and overwhelmingly complex in the film’s unbelievable scope and audacious visual style.

At its core, it's the type of work that perhaps Boyle had been striving towards throughout his career as it contains numerous elements seen in his other films such as a gruesome toilet sequence (Trainspotting), the director’s wondrous ability to tell the stories of and work with children Millions), weave horror together with political allegory and timely messages (28 Days Later), beauty and danger (The Beach), all the while emphasizing love complete with an uncharacteristic but joyful dance (A Life Less Ordinary).

Likewise, the film is almost musical in the way all of the technical elements blend together seamlessly from innovative editing from Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead’s Chris Dickens, Dogme veteran cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (The Celebration, Dogville, Manderlay, The Last King of Scotland), production designer Mark Digby (A Mighty Heart) and composer A.R. Rahman.

The production of the film and it's overall look was completed with a variety of cameras including: the ultra advanced and brand new SI-2K digital cameras that were small enough to be hand-held but could be used with a stabilizing gyro allowing them to film in very tight corners and intimate surroundings; the twelve frames per second capable Canon still camera Canon-Cam; traditional film cameras; tiny DigiCams and more to ensure that it wouldn’t have an overly polished and traditionally classical appearance.

As Boyle—who had never been to India prior to making the film noted—“I wanted to feel really involved in the city. I didn’t want to be looking at it, examining it. I wanted to be thrown right into the chaos as much as possible,” and this is evident from the beginning as we literally run along with our young hero (one of three actors portraying Jamal as he, Salim, and Latika go from roughly seven to thirteen to eighteen over the course of the movie).

In my view, the best marriage of all of the elements occurs in the bravura sequence set to M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” (also featured in the Seth Rogen/James Franco stoner buddy comedy Pineapple Express) wherein Jamal and Salim dangle off a speeding train, moving in and around it following their escape from the evil orphanage, essentially living like mini Woody Guthrie styled hobos. And this segment moves naturally until they eventually arrive at the Taj Mahal where they con their way into another gig, using their wits to survive until the impatient Salim take a different City of God style route embracing crime as the fastest way to obtain wealth and power.

In fact, watching it again in this exceptional Blu-ray transfer that helps make the digital source material all the more dazzling to behold, I was instantly struck by just how much of the film (aside from the whole Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? angle) recalled Fernando Meirelles’ brilliant City of God and after checking on the post God publication date of Swarup’s novel, I wondered how much the author had been inspired by it.

Also, seemingly drawing cinematically from not just Dickens but also the child-centric works of both Italian neorealism (such as The Bicycle Thief) as well as the post-neorealistic films from other countries including Mira Nair’s groundbreaking Salaam Bombay! which was the first Indian film to earn an Oscar nomination—Boyle manages to use endless possible sources for inspiration to his advantage all the while making an extremely contemporary tale of India as the “rapidly growing Mumbai is set to replace Tokyo as the world’s most populous city by 2020.”

“A city where as many as 50% of the citizens live in shantytowns, ghettoes or on the streets,” Boyle and his fearless cast and crew managed to strive even harder to explore areas rarely captured on film and the great economic and sociological divide of the setting crystallized to perfection by Beaufoy’s humanistic screenplay. The script itself is one to be envied for its astronomically difficult feat as Beaufoy tried to find one singular thread to use as a through-line from Swarup’s atmospheric book that consisted of “twelve short stories… some of which weren’t even linked in any way…[or] had no reference to the main characters at all.”

Definitely proof that—much like raising a child—it takes a whole village (or the efforts of those on a number of continents) to make a film—the vivid, visceral, and unforgettable Slumdog Millionaire would’ve been satisfying enough just simply transferring the Oscar winning film to Blu-ray but devotees will be thrilled to discover that it also has a making-of-featurette, twelve deleted scenes, a forty minute bonus short film titled Manjha, a music video, audio commentary—and inexplicably a “behind-the-scenes” look of the infamous “Toilet Scene” that honestly, I’m not sure many people will want to watch. Keeping the 2:35:1 widescreen aspect ratio and Dolby Digital as well as DTSHD sound that matches the amazingly crisp and richly detailed digital 1080 pixel picture—the Blu-ray also contains a bonus copy of the film for portable media players that’s compatible with both Macs and PCs.