So I saw Slumdog Millionaire, a movie whose best qualities can be found in its title: a simple, charming contradiction. What is a slumdog millionaire? "Slumdog" is not a term Americans are familiar with, at least they weren't before this movie, but it's not hard to figure out its meaning. A slumdog is a guy from the slums, lower class, vaguely dirty. A millionaire, on the other hand, is wealthy, possibly glamourous, maybe someone to be envied.
Two words, and yet a contradiction. I've been trying to think of another movie with a contradiction in the title, and I can't think of one. Right away, this movie has us thinking and wondering. How can a slumdog be a millionaire?
The contradictions don't stop there, they're just getting started. It's a grim romantic comedy, a love story inside a thriller. The plot elements are standard; an underdog, bad guys, a beautiful woman, impossible odds. But it's like nothing you've ever seen before. It's an American movie, released by a Hollywood studio, but it has almost nothing to do with America. It is a very Indian movie - it takes place in Mumbia, and was shot there, with Indian actors. But it is also a very multicultural movie - it was written, directed, and shot by Englishmen, and it features a game show imported from America. It takes place among the poorest of the poor, but it was partially shot with cutting edge digital cameras.
It's heartbreaking and heartwarming. It's gentle and sweet and brutal and violent. It is horrifying and beautiful. It's a story few people have ever heard, but everyone can relate to. It's cliched and original. It almost wasn't released in theaters, yet is in the front running to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
I'm not going to tell you anything about the plot, because there is so much to tell, and so much of it that I don't want to give away. I don't want to give it away because I want you to discover this cinematic gift yourself. Because you have to see it. You must. Some movies that win Best Picture are controversial (Crash, Shakespeare In Love). If Slumdog Millionaire wins, it will not be controversial. Its closest competition is Milk, which is very well-made and features some fine performances, including a brilliant one by Sean Penn. Milk is a very good movie, well-paced, nicely shot; it has few, if any weaknesses. But Slumdog Millionaire is bottled lightning. Gorgeous, infectious bottled lightning.
So I am not going to tell you anything about the plot. All I am going to do is ask you some questions.
Are you a slumdog? Probably not. Have you ever been a slumdog? Probably not. Do you want to be a slumdog? I would guess absolutely not.
But are you a millionaire, have you ever been a millionaire, do you want to be a millionaire? I would guess the answers to those questions are maybe, maybe, and quite probably yes.
But when you see Slumdog Millionaire, you will understand when I tell you that we all want to be slumdogs. Because Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), the slumdog millionaire, embodies a few more contradictions. He's been oppressed, he's been betrayed, he's emotionally scared, and yet he's a hopeless romantic. He's a little bit of a geek, he's kind of shy, and yet he is what Hemingway meant when he defined courage as grace under pressure. Because most of all, this slumdog, this gentle soul in a violent world, is a hero.