Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Love Letter to 'Bollywood'

Six Secrets of 'Slumdog' Success

by Jonathan Crow    January 13, 2009

"Slumdog Millionaire" is not your average Oscar contender. It's not about WWII survivors or tragically flawed geniuses. It doesn't star Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett, or Meryl Streep. Instead, "Slumdog" has no big-name actors, a miniscule budget, and a good chunk of the flick was shot in Hindi. With the film racking up four awards at Sunday's Golden Globes, plus taking home five trophies at last week's Critics' Choice Awards, "Slumdog Millionaire" has become an unlikely front-runner for Oscar gold. So why has this movie, which as late as last spring looked like it might be released straight to DVD, become such a huge hit with both critics and audiences? Here are a few reasons:

1. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?: In these days when TV financial experts are having full-blown conniption fits on air and the US economy is nose-diving its way into the next Great Depression, who doesn't want to be a millionaire? But if you think our country is in dire economic straits, it's nothing compared to the slums of Mumbai that are featured in the movie. So it's a real thrill to watch the character of Jamal (played by Dev Patel) go from the most abject poverty imaginable to the final round of the quiz show that could make him wealthier than he ever imagined. And apparently, the use of the one-time national sensation as a framing device in "Slumdog" has inspired ABC to bring the quiz show back to TV this summer, just in time for its 10th anniversary.

2. An Incredible Story: "Slumdog" might feel fresh and new but its story is essentially a good old fashioned melodrama, complete with dizzying highs, dismal lows, and a fairy-tale ending. The movie was based on a bestselling Indian novel called "Q&A." Veteran screenwriter Simon Beaufoy -- previously Oscar nominated for "The Full Monty" -- spent months in India researching the real conditions of the young children just barely getting by in Mumbai's poorest areas. Then he added the stirring love story to tie everything together. The resulting movie left audiences cheering.

3. Director Danny Boyle: Boyle has been the oddball wunderkind of British cinema for over a decade. He first came to international attention with "Trainspotting," perhaps the most entertaining movie ever made about the dangers of heroin addiction. And his "28 Days Later" is a slick and engaging movie about blood-thirsty zombies and the collapse of society. With his potent blend of over-caffeinated action and heartfelt emotion, Boyle was uniquely qualified to make a feel-good fable about abject poverty and child slavery.

4. Actress Freida Pinto: Simply put, she's gorgeous. A former model with no prior acting experience, she was the ideal casting choice for the dreamgirl who inspires Jamal to risk everything. The Mumbai-born Pinto quickly became an internet sensation, and she made several "Breakout Stars of 2008" lists. Never underestimate the box-office draw of a pretty face.

5. The Tourist Factor: For those whose only exposure to India might have been phone calls to customer service and the odd curry dinner, "Slumdog" is an eye-opener. Boyle resisted stepping back and shooting the movie like a travelogue. Instead, he thrusts the audience into a street-level view of the sights and sounds of India -- from the slum's crowded back alleys to the new gleaming towers of Mumbai, from the Taj Mahal to a stomach-churning outhouse. When you watch "Slumdog," you feel like you've been to India.

6. Bollywood: Remember back during the early '90s when Tinseltown did a collective double-take about wildly over-the-top flicks coming out of Hong Kong, movies like "The Killer," "City on Fire" and "Supercop"? It wasn't long afterwards that the likes of John Woo and Chow Yun Fat were making movies stateside and Hong Kong choreographers like Yuen Woo-ping were in high demand to add some kung fu spice to films like "The Matrix." Well, the same might be happening now with Bollywood.

In 2005, one India's largest film distributors -- Yash Raj films -- revealed that Indian movies make over $100 million a year in the States. Bollywood diva Aishwarya Rai is appearing in more and more Hollywood movies including the upcoming "Pink Panther" sequel. That being said, "Slumdog" is essentially a love letter to Bollywood. Not only does the movie feature two of India's biggest stars -- Amitabh Bachchan and Anil Kapoor -- but "Slumdog" also ends with that staple of Indian cinema: the lavish dance number. Is it only a matter of time before intricately choreographed musical routines show up in your average Sandra Bullock flick?

So, like the film's protagonist Jamal, "Slumdog Millionaire" has gone from being a complete underdog to being a major contender for the top prize. Of course, Golden Globes have a spotty track-record in predicting Oscar winners. In 2006, "Brokeback Mountain" looked poised to take Best Picture after winning big at the Globes, but its buzz crested early for the notoriously fickle Academy voters and the movie lost to "Crash." Will "Slumdog" suffer a similar fate or will it triumph? We'll get the final answer when the Academy Awards air on February 22nd.

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