14 January 2009

Milking the Millions

I have seen the trailer for the movie Milk approximately 17 times at cinemas over the past ten weeks. I don't really mind because I really like the music, which is, I think, taken from the excellent soundtrack of The Life of David Gale (a film I think I disliked when I saw it at the cinema but which has since grown on me). It was also nice because I was in San Francisco the first time I saw the trailer and I'm glad that I am finally going to get to see the damn thing, along with a Q&A with its director, Goosevanson, at the BFI this weekend. It had better be good!

Tonight, the Milk trailer was followed by Slumdog Millionaire, about which I had read very little until I saw a clip while passing a TV (or maybe it was on a film programme on the radio) and realised that it involved Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Then, when I saw it leap into the IMDb top 250 (at number 34), I thought I really ought to see it. The plot is simple--at least, on the surface--18-year-old "slumdog" Jamal (Dev Patel) gets through to the final question on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, to the delight of the viewers, only to find he is thrown in jail and accused of cheating. After all, how could this poor, uneducated tea-maker-to-the-call-centre-employees possibly be able to answer all those questions correctly when so many before him had failed?

So, once the lackey stops torturing him, Jamal tells the police officer exactly how he knows the answer to each of the questions, in doing so, telling his story--the story of how he and his brother managed after the death of their mother when they were very young, escaping from an "orphanage" run by a man who makes Miss Hannigan look like a pussycat, cruising past the Taj Mahal, travelling on trains and through brothels, living on their wits, surviving. Falling in love, making the wrong choices, betraying each other and standing by each other, spinning a very neat yarn when needed (the Taj Mahal "tour" in particular involved a very sophisticated brand of cunning for one so young). By the time Jamal has reached the end of his tale, winning the jackpot is so clearly missing the point, the point perhaps being highlighted by the question which asks what is the motto under the lions on the Indian flag.

It's a neat idea for a film: that by telling the story of how one guy came to know 15 trivial facts, you can tell his history. After all so many of the things and facts we know are learned by chance--or even through misfortune and unhappy events, in the case of the film. It's only easy if you know the answer, after all, and, indeed, Jamal has to use one of his lifelines on the second question, which further arouses the suspicions of the policeman who claims, "even five-year-olds know that." The facts that Jamal knows each have their own story--some tragic, some comic, some scary, some coincidental--but together they form a rich tapestry of knowledge, the miscellanea of the individual. The film itself is colourful, rich and intense as Jamal and his brother scramble across a wide range of Indian landscapes and cityscapes. It is a fractal inside a patchwork quilt inside a kaleidoscope. It is sweet and funny and sad. As a film about a quiz show, it blows Starter for Ten out of the water (yes, I know they're in a different league but I really dislike the movie of the latter).

Oh, and the only question posed during the TV show in the film of which I was certain of the answer, was, of course, the final question but for me to reveal what that question was would spoil a reference to a nice moment from earlier in the movie.

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