1/27/2009

Slumdog Millionaire, A Fine Balance

I took my mom to see "Slumdog Millionaire" this weekend. She hated it; I loved it. Mom only really wants to see happy movies like old American musicals and Masterpiece Theater remakes. I dragged her to see Bollywood's "Bride and Prejudice" a few years back, but even that jolly version of Jane Austen's classic love story didn't work for her. I think a lifetime of growing up in the deep South, with its attendant prejudices, leaves her sadly unable to appreciate great stories set in other cultures.
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As I was watching "Slumdog Millionaire", the tale of three little children growing up in the slums of Mumbai, I couldn't help but think it was like Oliver Twist meets Romeo and Juliet, with a little Schindler's List thrown in for good measure. Sweetness and light this film is not, although eventually there is a happy ending. All the Dickens characters are here : master of the beggar pick-pockets Fagin, Jamil's brother Salim as the Artful Dodger, an evil Bill Sikes, Laitika as gentle Nancy - in slight variations. Plus star-crossed lovers that will make the problems of Romeo and Juliet seem tame in comparison. Most people will tell you this is the story of some poor kid who wins a million rupees on an Indian game show. That is a true summary, but ignores most of the storyline of this film. The recurring references to the Three Musketeers explores the strong bond the three main characters have with one another as they help each other survive the harsh poverty and violent events that mark their childhood. The environment - the slums of Mumbai - these children grow up in will wring the most jaded westerners' hearts and make you want to go out and donate money to "Save the Children" or something similar. (Feel free to do so. It can't hurt.) The bond between the two little brothers, and the winsome faces of the young actors who played them in the film, are not easily forgotten, even days after seeing the movie. I may have to go watch it again, to catch all that I missed the first time. I remember being dazzled, visually, by all the beautiful colors of the slums.....
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This film reminded me also of a great book I read a few summers back : A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. (Oddly discordant sidebar : I was reading this tome while riding on trains throughout Italy. As fond as I am of the lovely Italian countryside, I think I remember the vivid scenes from this book, more.) This novel has a dozen characters, some wealthy, some poor, whose lives intermingle by happenstance, and it follows them through a series of mis-adventures that are so tragic they are almost comic. When I first read this book, a winner of the Man Booker prize for literature, I felt it reminded me of Dickens in its vast sweep of humanity and unobtrusive comments on the human condition. What this book and movie have in common is the dignity humans can possess in the face of unspeakable tragedy.



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