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Where EAST meets the Northwest

UNDERDOG TRIUMPH. Slumdog Millionaire ó starring Dev Patel, left, and Freida Pinto ó combines many cinematic traditions to create an unexpected film that is appealing to audiences everywhere. (Photo/Ishika Mohan, courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #5 (February 3, 2009), page 9 & 16.

A cross-cultural cinematic success story

Slumdog Millionaire

Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan

Produced by Christian Colson and Paul Ritchie

Showing in theaters everywhere

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Few films start with less fanfare and receive high praise as quickly as Slumdog Millionaire. After incredible success in the U.K., it opened in only 10 theaters in six U.S. cities this past November, but it became such an instant hit that it quickly expanded nationwide.

Two months later, the Anglo-Indian collaboration received 10 Oscar nominations to go with the more than 40 other international awards itís already garnered. Itís easy to see why: The film fuses the slick production values of Hollywood with the exuberant patchwork sensibility of Indian Bollywood films to produce a beautiful, well-crafted, and unexpected film that appeals to audiences everywhere.

The story follows Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), the unlikeliest contestant ever to appear on Indiaís version of the TV quiz show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" Jamal began as a child of the Indian slums, but worked his way up to tea-fetching assistant (or chai-wallah) at an Indian call center. Against all odds, he has made it onto the show, where he is one question away from winning the top 20 million rupee prize.

This improbable rise, while perfectly consistent with the bizarre plot twists of Bollywood cinema, does not wash with the Mumbai TV show in the film. The host (played by Indian star Anil Kapoor) in particular is suspicious of Jamalís easy confidence, and his surety in obscure answers. So Jamal is dragged off to be questioned and tortured to reveal how he knows the answers.

Slumdog follows Jamalís explanation of the source of his knowledge, coincidentally following the tortuous turns of his own life, itself a microcosm of Indian society. As a parentless trash-picker, he was taken into an orphanage with insidious designs on its charges, but escaped to become a street vendor, tour guide, and eventually the chai-wallah position that enables his quiz-show appearance.

Throughout his climb, there are two consistent figures: his older, tougher brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and their adoptive sister, fellow orphan Latika (Freida Pinto). Salim protects the two of them, often viciously, while Jamalís love for Latika drives him to seek her out after they become separated. By turns fortunate and unlucky, Jamal still eludes the worst fates awaiting the average child of the slum while unconsciously collecting clues that will later help him on the show.

The intricate filmmaking behind his story, mixing a rags-to-riches Bollywood plot with the tidy aesthetics of Hollywood, shows the Eastern-Western alliance behind Slumdogís success. Simon Beaufoy, the British writer who penned The Full Monty, adapted Slumdog from Q & A, a 2005 novel by Indian writer Vikas Swarup that won South Africaís Boeke Award. For realism, British director Danny Boyle, best known for Trainspotting and the horror film 28 Days Later, relied heavily upon co-director Loveleen Tandanís understanding of her native Indian language and culture.

Depending on your perspective, this either amounts to a beautiful fusion of different cultural sensibilities or cinematic colonial exploitation, though audiences donít seem to care. The filmís tremendous sales in the U.K. were a direct result of Englandís strong Asian population, evidenced by Slumdogís quick word-of-mouth growth. It debuted at No. 1, then increased its sales by 47 percent in its second week, a record-breaking jump that shattered the previous record of 13 percent.

Popular appeal aside, the question of its exploitativeness has caused some controversy. Critics say the film depends on a stereotype of Indians as sly, crafty survivors, or that it portrays India as a corrupt and violent country. Itís hard not to see this as true ó films everywhere depend on stereotypes and unrealistic generalizations, particularly romantic adventures, one of the many genres that might describe Slumdog.

This blending is another symptom of its transcontinental origins. Like the Bollywood movies from which it draws, the film combines many cinematic traditions, mixing music, adventure, romance, and comedy into one implausible and twisting plotline. Slumdog is alternately brutal and touching, tragic and comic, grittily realistic and romantically improbable, but trying to separate the Eastern and Western influences on the movie becomes a futile enterprise, if not a meaningless one.

Just like the Anglo-Indians on both sides of the Atlantic who flocked to theaters to watch it, Slumdog has adapted its native traditions and language to its glitzy Western context. If it suffers from a kind of identity crisis, alternately apologetic and proud of its roots, then it is no different from the millions of hyphenated immigrants worldwide whose story it tries to portray. Whatever its origins ó or yours ó Slumdog Millionaire has a marvellous, spellbinding character all its own, and your ability to enjoy it without reservation is assured.