Monday, January 12, 2009

Bollywood Dickens - Slumdog Millionaire

The front row. That’s what I used to think was the ideal place to be in a movie theater, the summer after first grade when my sister worked at the Park Cinema across the street from Howarth Park. My sister worked at the theater and so I could get in free. The musical Oliver was playing for weeks, and I saw it several times -- always in the front row.
I enjoyed many things about that film: the music was wonderful, and I still occasionally listen to the sound track. Jack Wild, who played the Artful Dodger, was quite good, and he would go to star in one of my Saturday morning favorites, “H. R. Pufnstuf” (sadly, when I look back on that television program, I realize now it was heavily influenced by the drug culture of the time). I also had a crush on the woman who played Nancy (Shani Wallis, who went on to do very little else.)
But I think the greatest appeal of that film was the original Charles Dickens story. The original tale, of the orphan that begins in abject poverty, stumbles into the criminal underworld and then miraculously discovers love and wealth, has been brought to the screen in many forms. The great director David Lean (Bridge Over the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) filmed a classic version of the story with Alec Guinness as Fagin. Roman Polanski (Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby) had a darker take on the tale with Ben Kingsley as Fagin. Its polar opposite may be the Disney film with Oliver played by an animated kitty in Oliver and Company.
I’m thinking about this because I felt a bit like I relived that childhood experience last weekend. I was at the same theater, though it now has another name, the Rialto. The film had a different name as well, of course. This one is called Slumdog Millionaire. It is set in India and features a contestant in the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” But in many ways, it is the same story.
Jamil and Salim, young boys in the slums of Mumbai, are orphaned when religious violence (Hindus attacking Muslims) takes the life of their mother. They struggle to survive on their own, joined by an orphan girl named Latika.
Like Dickens, the screen writer Simon Beaufoy (basing his screenplay on the novel by Vikas Swarup) does not shy away from the darkest shades of human nature and experience. This film is rated R and does present rather grim and violent scenes and images. But there is also hope.
Jamil goes through many horrendous experiences, but never gives up on the chance of finding love (quite like young Oliver Twist). Of course, the means of redemption in this film are quite different than in Dickens’ tale. Instead of redemption coming by way of a long lost relative, it comes through an appearance on a game show.
I’m not giving anything away that the studio publicity didn’t promote by telling you he appears on “Millionaire”. The poster for the film shows a question presented in the format of that TV show: “What does it take to find a lost love? A. Money, B. Luck, C. Smarts, D. Destiny”
The heroes of Dickens are rarely rich. They usually aren’t lucky for the majority of the novel. They aren’t necessarily even very bright. But ultimately, destiny is on their side.
In the film, Jamal’s brother Salim buys into the wisdom of the world that security can be found in wealth (their friend, Latika, to some degree buys into the same “wisdom”). Salim goes from the slum to a place of high position in the criminal world. But he comes to realize, perhaps too late, that only God offers true salvation. Jamil is not as “wise” as Salim. And that’s not a bad thing.
It reminds me of what Paul wrote concerning the church in I Corinthians 1, “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.”
One word about the director, Danny Boyle: his work is eclectic to say the least. His breakthrough film was Trainspotting, a rather sordid but witty film about heroin addicts. Probably his most financially successful film was 28 Days Later, a very scary zombie film. I’ve written about Millions, a heartwarming parable about children who discover a great treasure. All very good films in very different genres. This film may be his best.

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