This is the current front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar, and of the ones I’ve seen (and I admit, I haven’t seen many) it is the best. The only movie I can recall this year that I enjoyed more is WALL-E, and the Academy in its wisdom elected not to nominate that. The story is Dickensian, though tougher than anything Oliver Twist had to endure. It uses an ingenious device to tell the story of Jamal, played by three actors at different stages of his life, a throwaway orphan who lives with his brother in what is basically a garbage dump. He has become a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” (Me! Me! The name is John Varley, Monty! Pick me!) He has a chance to win up to 20,000,000 rupees … which is at least $1.98 in real money. (Kidding. It’s actually $411,311.07 at today’s exchange rate. Not what we’d call a huge fortune, but your rupee goes a lot further in India.) And he keeps answering the questions right. This ex-slumdog and current chai-wallah, who never went to school … so what gives? They’re suspicious, and try to find out just how he’s cheating by beating it out of him. And so his story emerges, as he explains how he came to know each answer. The truth is usually not pretty. He has lived an incredibly hard life. Workhouse? Don’t make me laugh, Jamal would have loved to be in a workhouse, with regular meals of delicious, nourishing gruel. The horrors of the underbelly of India are hard to watch and almost impossible to believe, but they’re all true. But don’t worry. This is a Dickensian tale, and things always work out in the end in a story by Boz. Just remember, at the end, when Jamal is stumped for the answer, shout out “ARAMIS!!!” and everything will be okay.
If you stop to think about it, the story is wildly unlikely. So just don’t think about it, okay? Is Great Expectations believable? It is not, but that doesn’t stop it from being a great story. Just go with the flow and let this great tale wash over you.
There has been a great backlash in India over this film. Many if not most Indians are pissed off that it shows so much of the ugliness of Indian life. We are modernizing, these people shout. We have the world’s largest middle class. We are an economic powerhouse. Well, you know what? Fuck ‘em. It is very true that India has come a long way, and we see quite a lot of that, from huge forests of apartment buildings going up to the giant service economy providing tech support and answering billing questions from faraway Americans. India is achieving miracles of education, and in 50 years who knows what they’ll have accomplished … but in a way, that just makes it all the more poignant, doesn’t it? No one can deny that this stuff still goes on, that India has some of the most miserable, hopeless, and destitute people on the planet, and that not a lot is being done for them. They are going to have to be faced sometime, and trying to shove the vast slums into the shadows won’t do anything about the problem. This is the Mumbai I saw (it was Bombay then) twenty years ago, before the economic revolution began. Beggars everywhere, children knocking on your taxi window. Incredible crowding and filth, bad smells, the dirtiest water I ever saw. And we never strayed far from the tourist centers around the Taj Mahal hotel (scene of recent terrorist atrocities). So suck it up, India! This ain’t an exposé, it’s a story about one boy struggling to overcome incredible odds, and it should humble you that such things still exist in the New India … and one hopes, fill you with resolve to do something about it.