Director: Danny Boyle
Country: United Kingdom
We've come a long way from The River. Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, that film is a French-American co-production directed by Jean Renoir and set in India. It balances the coming of age story of a young girl in an English household by the banks of the Bengal river with documentary-like segments depicting the life and customs of the Indian people. Being Renoir's first color film, it is beautiful to look at and tries to provide an embracing, honest look at India, but it is still very much situated in a distinctly colonial perspective. As Satyajit Ray, who served as an assistant on the film and went on to become one of India's most renowned filmmakers, noted with disappointment, though the film was about and shot in India, only one of the principal players was Indian (played by the actress Radha). Honest and revealing though it may be, it only ever achieves a partial view of India. But like I said, we've come a long way from The River, and since that film, Western filmmakers have progressed considerably in their consideration of this magical country.
Recently, there has been a sort of resurgence of interest from Western filmmakers to make movies in and about India. Last year, we saw Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, which still carried his trademark style, but was nonetheless set in India (drawing influence not only from The River, but also the films of Ray himself). Shortly before the Mumbai attacks, Paul Schrader openly voiced his desire to go to India to make a film there. And then comes Slumdog Millionaire: the Danny Boyle-helmed Dickensian romance centered around a gameshow which just happened to take film festivals by storm, clean up at the Golden Globes and has a very strong chance of doing the same at this year's Academy Awards ceremony.
Tons have already been written about Slumdog in the interwebs and beyond, so I'll keep my own assessment of the movie short. Frankly, I loved it. The kinetic, stylish, madcap Danny Boyle who gave us Trainspotting is back, but in a whole new setting that oddly suits him. While his recognizable traits are present, he also makes the wise (and, as far as what I've heard about India, irresistable) choice to surrender to his surroundings. Unlike The River, or The Darjeeling Limited for that matter, he successfully captures the real, unfiltered India in his film, drinking in the many intoxicating sights and not shying away from the harsher ones, letting them all be captured by his cameras (which, according to this interview with Darren Aronofsky, sound like a guerilla filmmaker's wet dream) and contribute immeasurably to the story he is telling. In this film, India is very much an active participant in the story, helping shape the characters, growing and changing right along with them. Slumdog uses an old, tried-and-true story formula of a long, challenging quest for lost love, but its success is all about the way that story is told, and the captivating adrenaline rush that this film delivers is full proof of that. I can't wait to see it again.
Oh yeah, and this is my favorite to win Best Picture at the Oscars this year (even though it would be very cool if the Academy bestwed the award to a certain superhero flick).