There are only three reasons why I tune in to the Oscars every year. The first was to see who wins the award in Visual Effects. The second was to see who wins as the Best Animated Feature. And lastly, to see if an Asian film makes it big by reaping the big awards.
Sadly, I was disappointed twice. Ironically, both movies vying for the said honors were directed by the same person, Ang Lee. I wasn’t expecting Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to win, I knew Gladiator would, but only because of Western bias. (Yah, I still can’t get over my bitterness over that film after all these years.) Meanwhile, Brokeback Mountain finally gave Lee the directing award he rightfully deserves, but once again that movie lost to Crash. If during the first matchup, the two films were marginally the same, revolving around the same theme and differing only in setting and culture, this time, the next matchup has the two movies existing on opposite points on the Cartesian plane. One was a hardboiled and violent drama; the other was a controversial gay love story. If the theme is used as the sole basis of judgment, then it’s too easy to guess who’s going to receive the golden statue. (On a related side note, I have always been defending Ang Lee’s version of Hulk against the more recent version, I like the comic book feel of the movie and the emphasis on character development as the plots unfold, a general characteristic of Ang Lee’s films. It wasn’t perfect however, it has a bad climax and a scene that’s obviously a ripoff from King Kong. Oh well.)
Then last year, I have read somewhere about the possibility of an Asian film finally bagging the elusive Best Picture. I thought it was The Forbidden Kingdom. I’ve seen that film and sadly, it failed to exceed my expectations.
Turns out I was looking at the wrong country. I knew about Bollywood being as huge as its rhyming US counterpart, but I haven’t seen any titles that broke through and achieved worldwide mainstream recognition.
Until this year’s Oscar Awards, that is. Out of nowhere, Slumdog Millionaire came and swept the Oscars, earning golden statues almost one after another, all the way to the final statue known as the Best Picture.
Slumdog Millionaire is the story from childhood to adolescence of three children from the slums (as suggested by the title): Jamal, his older brother Salim, and Latika, the female lead character whom they met after a tragic incident in their childhood. The Millionaire part refers to the main event in the movie, the participation of Jamal, the main character, in an episode of the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, of all things. The plot unfolds using the mechanism of the game show, via a sequence of seemingly random trivia questions to be answered by the contestant. The questions had certain significance to important points in Jamal’s life, reenacted thru one of two kinds of flashbacks used in the movie (or so it seems). I tried to immerse myself within the atmosphere of the movie by trying to guess the hints that helped Jamal give the correct answer, which for the record are presented in a wholly clever and unexpected manner. Same goes to the use of the three lifelines in the show, they were used in sync with critical events in the movie. I was particularly touched when Jamal used the “Call a friend” lifeline near the end of the movie. Moreover, the movie also starts with a question to kick off the game show atmosphere of the movie. The question is: Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it?
He’s a genius.
It is written.
Conflicts arise in several circumstances: when Jamal was accused of cheating (considering that many professionals couldn’t get more than halfway thru the questions and only one other person was able to acquire rupees by the millions, the host of the game show, who is witty and well-acted); or as a natural occurrence in the diverse environments where the characters were thrust (for the record, the slums were pictured in an un-indie-like manner, looking somewhat cleaner than those on other indie films. This is one of the few gripes I have with indie films recently, these sceneries were already too commonplace, it’s fast becoming a cliché); and, of course, the obligatory love triangle between the three characters.
So far, there’s only one negative criticism for the movie. There’s too much coincidence between the questions and the life story that goes on with it, resulting in the decrease of realism in the movie. IMO the criticism is plainly baseless. This movie is entirely based on fiction, so coincidences are fairly normal. But more than this, the movie tries to prove that there are many unconventional ways to acquire knowledge, not limited to just memorizing stuff from every book or any other source anyone may come into. Jamal had gone thru a lot in the movie, experienced a lot of things which, all things considered, was wholly unrealistic (and yet nobody had bothered to criticize them). I mean, how often do we hear of kids who got orphaned, kidnapped, escaped to Taj Mahal, returns home to exact revenge on those who caused them misery and then get involved with yet another crime syndicate and finally, work in a variety of jobs to continue living? What this proves is that experience is also a good source of knowledge. It’s not about the questions asked in particular, if something else is asked in place of the question, there’s always the possibility that Jamal may be able to answer them. And well, since this is again fictional, Jamal will be able to do just that.
[But you still can’t disregard the role of luck in this game. The gun question could have easily thrown off anyone else since all of the given choices are quite related to the question. Jamal lucked out twice. Experience, combined with luck, makes a deadly duo.]
One of the best aspects of the movie was its superb use of sound elements. It feels quite refreshing to listen to musical scores tinged with Oriental flavor, and they complement the corresponding scenes pretty well. I never expected that the movie was also able to reinvent Millionaire’s built-in sound effects. I also liked the two songs from the movie who was nominated for Best Song, and Jai Ho deserved the award. Even its music video, placed during the end credits of the movie, was the perfect anticlimax and ending to Jamal and Latika’s cheesy love story.
It doesn’t end there, though. Ploning made a serious campaign last year for the Oscars, and even though it failed eventually, it’s a sure sign that in coming years, a Filipino film may someday end up at least as a nominee in Oscars.