The Curious Case of Benjamin Button provides us with a character who is able to reflect back on her life as she lies on her deathbed. This is something of fictionalized Hollywood here for a variety of reasons. In many cases, death comes for us quickly and without warning, robbing us of any opportunity for grand meaning-making. In other cases, the dying individual so fearfully resists death and her immediate future that there is no time for healthy reflection. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is not afraid of death, just simply curious about what awaits her. She is, however, more concerned with re-living the events of her past through the reading of Benjamin’s diary. Another film, Slumdog Millionaire, offers a more realistic, if still highly fictionalized, account of an opportunity for one young man to take stock of his life so far.
Directed by Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a slumdog (a child born into extreme poverty in India) who strikes it rich on the world-famous television game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. As Jamal approaches the 10 million rupee mark, the host of the game show begins to suspect him of cheating because no one else has won anywhere near this amount and a slumdog certainly should not know these answers. During a break in filming, the host turns Jamal over to the authorities who begin to visciously torture and interrogate him to find out how he cheated. The rest of the film involves a series of flashbacks that reveal how Jamal knew the answers to each of the questions. Satisfied that Jamal is not lying, the police inspector (Irrfan Khan) releases Jamal so that he may finish his run on the show. As he moves up the winnings ladder, the entire country begins to root for Jamal to win it all.
Rather than just simply a rags-to-riches story, Slumdog Millionaire, through its series of flashbacks, becomes a story about love, betrayal, sin, and redemption. The flashbacks begin as a young Jamal plays in the streets with his brother Salim and their friends. Though extremely poor, they are the kings of their domain, taunting the local officials as they make their way through the streets of the slums. Jamal and Salim, along with their new friend Latika, are eventually taken in by a slum-lord looking to make money off of children who he trains to beg and steal. When Salim realizes what this monster has in store for Jamal, the two brothers escape, but Salim is unable (or unwilling) to take Latika with them. For the next several years, Jamal and Salim run the streets, dealing in theft and fraud. When they re-unite with Latika after Jamal’s tireless search for her, Salim kills their former captor and they flee. Recognizing that his captor’s gang will now be out for all of them, Salim joins forces with the most powerful gang leader in Mumbai and begins a life of crime that consumes Latika as well. Jamal moves on to a more respectable life as a call-center gopher, though he never forgets Latika. In an effort to win her attention, he signs up for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.
We see all of these events as Jamal begins to tell the police inspector how he knew the answer to each question. As he re-tells his life, he begins to see the value that even the shittiest (literally, you have to see the film to get it) moments in our life may have. Of course, as a child, Jamal could have never known that, but as a young adult looking back on his life, he finds meaning where it might not have existed before. Though the unfortunate opportunity of his interrogation allows Jamal to tell his story, there is so much that he still cannot know, especially involving his brother Salim. So much of Salim’s life that has bearing on Jamal’s takes place while Jamal is both on the quiz show and being held captive. Salim’s apparent act of betrayal when they were teenagers (joining the gang and basically taking Latika with him) has some redemptive qualities. Had he not joined the gang, his former captors would have most certainly killed all three of them. Deeply entrenched in his new crime family, Salim can protect Jamal, even if from a great distance. As Jamal tries to reunite with Latika, it is Salim who pays the ultimate price so that the two may be together in the end, potentially redeeming his previous acts of violence and betrayal.
Slumdog Millionaire is a visually stunning film with fast paced cuts and sharp edits. Boyle adapts to his foreign surroundings with near perfection. The performances all around are first rate, especially from Dev Patel as Jamal. If you have not seen it, catch the British television series, Skins, on BBC America for more work by Patel. The conclusion of the film is a dance number homage to Bollywood that surprisingly does not feel tacked on. Of course, most of the praise should fall into the lap of Simon Beaufoy who crafted a simply fantastic screenplay from a novel by Vikas Swarup. Both writers have taken one of the most trivial (forgive the pun) pop culture phenomena and turned it into an opportunity to explore love, redemption, and meaning-making.
Slumdog Millionaire (120 mins.) is rated R for language, disturbing images, and violence and is playing in most theaters.