Rags to Raja

Hang on, we may need a last-minute recount on the best movie of 2008, because I just got back from seeing Slumdog Millionaire. Considering it’s been getting near-universal praise from critics and audiences, I hadn’t heard that much about it. I would’ve passed it by if an internet pal hadn’t recommended I see it in a theater (thanks, Matt!) And I’d definitely extend that recommendation — see it in a theater while you still can, not even for the visuals as much as the soundtrack, which is such an important part of the movie.

I’d seen the trailer, but hadn’t thought much of it. It’s a Fox Searchlight movie directed by the Trainspotting guy about a Mumbai orphan who makes it to the finals on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I figured it’d have to be a self-consciously independent film about a cross-cultural journey of discovery (along the lines of The Namesake), or a hard-hitting-but-ultimately-uplifting examination of poverty in India, or worst of all, a Guy Ritchie-esque short-attention-span-edited bastardization of Indian culture regurgitated for Western audiences.

You can see the detritus of that in the tragicomic comments about the novel on which the movie was based (originally titled Q & A) on Amazon.com. A couple of helpful internet cranks have accused the book (and by extension, movie) of mashing together insulting stereotypes and images of Indian squalor in an attempt to pander to Westerners — we’re not being shown what India is really like, but just enough that we can shake our heads at how horrible it must be, so we’re still superior, but proud of ourselves for our compassion.

What this fails to recognize — and what the rare curmudgeonly negative review is quick to point out that it does recognize, and aren’t they smart? — is that this isn’t a realistic story; it’s a dark fairy tale. The comparisons to Oliver Twist are pretty obvious, but this isn’t just a case of translating a story about poverty in London in the early 1800s to Bombay in the early 90s. The movie takes our collective memory of Dickens’ stories, and mixes them with the castles of Cinderella (in the form of the Taj Mahal, as well as high-rise apartments and luxury hotels in modern-day Mumbai), the gangsters from movies spanning from Prohibition-era to the slums-of-LA versions, impossibly corrupt policemen and other officials, and a fairy tale love story given no deeper explanation than “these two were meant to be together.” It all combines to form a fantastic underdog story that’s completely universal.

That theme of universality — that this isn’t a story about India, but about people who live in India — is all through the movie, and it’s not particularly subtle. The fact that the framing story is a Hindu version of a British game show (which also traveled to the US) should be the first clue; other signs are memorable images like the crowds of people gathered in front of an electronics store to watch the big show, or the German and American tourists who confuse money with compassion, or the symbols of Scotland scattered all around the call center where the main character works. We can’t treat places as if they were isolated cultures anymore; there’s too much cultural exchange going on. And not the high-minded exchange of the arts that we like to believe, either: stuff like “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” travels fastest, because it’s got the basic drama that translates well to everyone.

And that basic drama is what the movie’s all about, and it delivers. The phrase “crowd-pleaser” is mentioned in the trailer, and that’s definitely true, and it’s definitely not the pejorative you might expect. This is the rousing underdog story that all of those treacly sports movies try to be. The reason Slumdog Millionaire succeeds where those movies fail is that it’s beautifully shot, it earns its laughs as well as its uplifting moments, and it deftly balances fantasy and realism, good and evil, despair and hopefulness, comedy and drama, old-fashioned storytelling and modern moviemaking throughout. The only prejudices in the movie are the ones you bring in with you. And the only way you could remain unmoved by the end of the movie is if you’ve over-thought it.