Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

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Back in the middle of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? craze, there was an event at my hometown mall (aww, remember when malls were still a thing?) where they offered an eligibility test for the show – basically just a bunch of trivia questions.  My brother and I both took the test.  He passed, and I didn’t, but I did get to take home a commemorative coin with Regis Philbin’s face on it, so you can’t really call that losing, can you?  (For the record, my brother never got called to go on the show.)

The plot of Slumdog is bizarrely Dickensian:  a boy and his brother grow up on the mean streets of Mumbai, orphaned at a young age and then taken in by a devious Fagin (I learned that name from a previous Best Picture!) who runs a begging operation.  Hijinks ensue, eyeballs are gouged out, and eventually the boy ends up serving tea at a call center.  Then, in a step that’s not fully explained, he ends up on a game show, where he happens to get all the questions right and is tortured under suspicion of cheating.  A nice family film.  Did I mention the interrogation framing device, at least the third such structure I’ve seen in all the Best Picture films.

I do enjoy a good game show, so I’m torn between loving this movie and cringing at the absurd plot holes.  For example, as a game show aficionado, I’m well aware that the structure of a game show prevents the contestants from ever speaking to the host off-air, as happens at a fairly significant moment in this film.

And that raises another question:  how exactly did the uneducated Jamal Malik manage to make it to the Hot Seat on The Millionaire Show (as my mom used to call it)?  As you may recall, the show is structured so that a pool of potential contestants are given a quick-fire question that involves sorting things in order the fastest in order to make it in the Hot Seat – but we only see Jamal after he’s already started playing.  Even if the Indian version of the game didn’t require a pre-test, how is it that he happened to face exactly the right questions to win?  Tricky.

While we’re on the subject of questioning the improbably things that happen, let’s talk about brother Salim for a moment.  The boys start out as rivals, but in the relatively innocent sibling sense.  Later, as their lives get harder, Salim grows more ruthless, until they part ways.  Then, Salim completely flips again, in defiance of every decision he’s made up to that point.  Why the dramatic arc?  Why does Jamal dance joyfully mere hours after his brother [spoiler deleted]?

Okay, so as long as you don’t think particularly hard about it, it’s kind of a fun movie.  Best movie of the year?  Well, I don’t know.  On the other hand, it’s nice to see a movie that isn’t exclusively peopled by white folks win something.  I haven’t seen many of those lately.


Theme:  India

First Time Watching?  No.

Final Verdict:  You probably expect a final answer joke here.


Gandhi (1982)


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Watching historical movies is a great exercise in testing how little you know about a given subject, even if it’s, hypothetically speaking, a renowned icon of the twentieth century.  It’s also a great excuse to question why you know pathetically little about one of the most populous countries on the planet.  Fun fact:  up until yesterday, I believed that Indira Gandhi was Mohandas Gandhi’s daughter or granddaughter or something, because how could they not be kin and also how weird is it that both were assassinated?  Color me ignorant.

Recently, I’ve seen new writing about Gandhi: he’s been a subject of some more intense scrutiny.  For example, he supposedly tested his commitment to celibacy by having various little girl relatives sleep in his bed.  Creepy.  An article in National Geographic revisited his Salt March and his legacy today throughout the country, including the long-term impact on the acceptance of Dalits (the Untouchable caste) in modern society.  It could be better – but then, so could our own interpersonal relations in America.

Very little of that criticism makes it into this biopic.  Overall, it’s a pretty glowing jaunt through some of Gandhi’s most significant victories in his struggle for Indian independence, starting with his battle for Indian equality in South Africa (equality for blacks would have to come much later).  Some of it’s vaguely familiar to me, like the aforementioned Salt March (though I somehow had the impression that it happened a decade or two earlier, and also that Gandhi himself died considerably before independence).  There was also a fairly disturbing massacre of Indians who were peacefully demonstrating, killed under orders of some unapologetic British general.  I looked up the name of it, but have forgotten, and it’s kind of sad how easily such things are swept into the annals of history.

Gandhi brings to mind Paul Farmer, he of Partners in Health, the medical organization that renders aid to Haiti and other poor countries in great need.  How could someone be that good, that selfless?  And, just as in reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, I feel slightly guilty about being bored to tears by a biographical epic about someone who did good things in the world.  Maybe it’s partly because I recognize that I will never be so influential and am not even capable of being remotely as selfless.

But also because there’s nothing really to challenge me intellectually here.  I can appreciate the personal sacrifices he made, perhaps even question within myself whether I could successfully protest injustice in such an effective way (sad truth confession: probably not).  On the other hand, it’s hard to think critically about a historical figure who came out on the right side of history.  When you already know what happened, it’s hard not to see the arc as inevitable, even if the reality was nothing so definite.

On the plus side, Gandhi leaves us with some reassuring words, in a time that threatens the freedom of the world:  “Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won.  There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail.  Think of it: always.”


Theme:  India

First Time Watching?  Yup

Final Verdict:  The truth is the truth.