Year Released: 2008
Directed by: Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan
Starring: Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Freida Pinto, Irrfan Khan, Madhur Mittal
(R, 120 min.)
Academy Awards (2009) Best Picture
"Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?" Robert Browning
Mumbai’s squalid slums sing with color. They spawn brutality and betrayal, and sometimes, only sometimes, innocence and devotion. Don’t miss this inspiring story of a street urchin who rises phoenix-like from the ashes of his past for a chance to reclaim his lost love.
The narrative is framed around India’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ where 18 year old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an orphan from the slums of Mumbai, is on the verge of winning the top prize. The contrast between the slick contest stage and his grim shantytown roots encompasses the dichotomy that is modern India.
Behind the high tech podium and the slick host are reminders of a harsher reality. Certain that this uneducated boy must be cheating, the police resort to not so high tech interrogation techniques, most of them relying on an old car battery. But the police inspector (Irrfan Khan) is no cardboard villain. His eyes register pain and empathy even as he tells his sergeant to throw the switch.
Through a series of flashbacks, Jamal details how he has come to know the answers to the free ranging and often esoteric quiz questions. Of course, one has to buy into the fairy tale quality, the miraculous coincidences, the almost magical realism that threads all of this together, but the tale itself is what draws us in.
Much of what anchors the story is the contrast between Jamal and his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). It begins with impish pranks, such as Salim locking Jamal in the latrine to ensure that he will miss the visit of his idolized film legend. Jamal’s audacious response captures his character completely. His only way out is a dive into the sea of excrement below, from which he emerges with a coat of putrid ooze that announces his arrival before him. Undaunted, Jamal walks up to the film legend and gets his autograph. Equally telling is Salim’s subsequent sale of it for a few silver coins.
Barely escaping a Hindi/Muslim bloodbath that takes their mother, the brothers pair up with another orphan, Latika ((Freida Pinto), and survive by foraging in the fetid mountain of trash that rims the city. Their lives take a turn when a kindly stranger offers them cold Coca Cola and takes them to his home for orphans, where the tables are piled with steaming rice and the beds are clean and soft. But the saintly stranger is not one, and only at the last moment do the brothers escape his painful strategy to up their begging potential. Latika, sadly, cannot run fast enough to catch the train that carries them away.
Life on the road is a picaresque adventure for the two, who use their wits and wiles to survive, becoming for a time unofficial guides to the Taj Mahal, where their inventive histories are much more entertaining than the real ones. It is to find Latika, for whom Jamal’s heart yearns in the kind of soulful devotion that was once part of parcel of our cinematic mystique (now roundly rejected for mere carnal desire), that Jamal abandons his thriving entrepreneurial aspirations for the more banal existence of washing dishes back in Mumbai.
Again and again, Latika eludes his tenuous grasp, while Salim takes on a casual brutality that severs their relationship. It is his last attempt to reach Latika, who is an ardent fan of “Who Wants to be A Millionaire,” that propels Jamal to the stage in a performance almost as audacious as his dive from the latrine.
The whispers of Oscar potential and the rousing critical acclaim heaped on this ebullient film represent quite a sharp turn form the misanthropic melee highly touted in past years. Have filmmakers and critics remembered that cynicism becomes a luxury in tough times like these? Could it be that they have reverted to the winning formulas that inspired us through the Depression and World War, an era that produced some of the finest films ever made? (1939 alone gave us Gone with the Wind, Dark Victory, Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz , Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.)
Let us hope the quality of this fall’s fare is not a fluke but the beginning of a trend. Turn off the news with its bleak pronouncements and immerse yourself in Slumdog Millionaire. Let the rousing score wash over you like welcome rains, and allow the final dance scene, like an ode to joy, to lighten your heart.
The host of “Millionaire” cannot believe that Jamal, this lowly Chai Wala (Tea Server), has advanced unerringly to the brink of winning its highest prize, He repeats the phrase, Chai Wala as a taunting rebuke, almost like a dirty word to try to unnerve his guest. But it has no effect, possibly because is has been Jamal’s job as a tea server that has enabled him make contact with Latika. One of the phone technicians that he serves asks Jamal to take over his station while he takes an unapproved break, and Jamal uses his access to the computer to search for Latika.
Alas, their meeting is too short and ends with a dangerous parting, but it spurs him to continue trying to reach her. Tonight, all the phone technicians to whom he once served tea, as well as all of India, are tuned into the final episode. Is Latika among them?
Calm your beating heart with a taste of this delightful drink, redundantly called Chai Tea here, which translates as ‘tea tea.” This instant version makes enough for 48 servings and is considerably cheaper than packaged mixes. The cinnamon and spice will carry you away to the shores of India when you savor this unique holiday drink.
Indian Chai Tea
1 1/2 cups instant tea powder
2 cups powdered non-dairy creamer
1/2 cup dry milk powder
1 cup confectioners sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon vanilla powder (or use vanilla flavored creamer if this is unavailable)
Recipe Source: allrecipes.com