Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” is an emotionally uplifting tale about an orphaned boy struggling through life in Mumbai that just might usher in Bollywood to the masses. Though the ending is predictable within its first few minutes, Boyle brings a gripping energy to the film, offering a balanced dose of harsh reality and thoughtful escapism.
One question away from winning 20 million rupees on India’s version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” Jamal Malik (Dev Patal) is dragged from backstage and mildly tortured by authorities who suspect this uneducated “tea boy” is cheating. In order to continue playing in the next week’s episode, Jamal must explain how he arrived at each answer. Thus the film jolts backwards and forwards through a series of flashbacks, as Jamal shares the poignant moments in his story that led him to this point.
Jamal’s coming of age is a story of competition and survival, like modern India itself. While the elite classes roll around in luxury cars and live in skyscrapers, slum-dwellers struggle to get by. Crime fills Mumbai’s dirty streets and entire villages go up in flames in one night. Jamal’s craftiness was born in the gutters — he manipulates, steals and cheats to stay alive.
The driving force of this film is young Jamal’s devotion to another “slumdog,” the enchanting Latika (Freida Pinto). The tension between Jamal’s idealized love and the devastation that surrounds him provides the film with an energy that keeps the audience involved.
Though the film’s ending is like a modern fairy tale, the inventive structure of the film avoids any clichés. It’s not the ending point that we are rushing to get to; rather, every step of Jamal’s young life is significant in his future.
Cheesy Bollywood dancing accompanies the closing credits, as if Boyle couldn’t resist playing on the stereotype. That aside, “Slumdog” is a much more accessible Indian film for American audiences that don’t favor the grandiose style of many Bollywood musicals.
Mark Herman’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” presents a far different coming-of-age story. The son of a highly ranked Nazi soldier, Bruno is part of the German privileged class. Unlike Jamal, Bruno has never witnessed the atrocities in his homeland, and has parents who knowingly hide the truth from their young son. It is only when Bruno encounters the oppressed that he questions what he has been told, though he never shares Jamal’s grasp of reality. Jamal rises out of the slums by any means possible, but Bruno remains tragically innocent at the film’s conclusion.
At its outset, Bruno’s family moves to the country, only steps away from the concentration camp his father commands. Though his tutor spews propaganda daily to Bruno and his sister about the evil ways of the Jewish race, Bruno ultimately befriends another eight-year-old boy, Shmuel (Jack Scanlon), a Jewish prisoner in the camp. This friendship grows, despite the electric barbed wire that separates them, and Bruno begins to struggle with the Nazi ideology and the child before his eyes.
The most interesting facet of the film is its unique point of view through the eyes of a Nazi child. For Bruno, concentration camps are farms, worker uniforms are striped pajamas, and their numbers are all part of some game. It’s easy to sympathize with the naïve view of this child, who stands in sharp contrast to his older sister, who buys into the Third Reich’s rhetoric — posters of Hitler and Nazi Youth blanket every inch of her walls.
Though it is assuredly not Herman’s intent to trivialize the plight of the Jews, the narrow scope of the film hinders a strong emotional response to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Rather, we are repeatedly and not so subtlely confronted with innocence versus Nazism. Shmuel, the most innocent victim in the film, speaks no more than 10 sentences throughout the film, and the Jews themselves are practically used as extras.
What’s worst, the final shocking moments render the film’s message meaningless, essentially demeaning the Holocaust. In the final shots of the film the iron doors of a gas chamber are shut tight with Bruno inside, and his family screaming out in anguish — transforming this into a family tragedy, when it shouldn’t be. We are shocked and nauseous, but for a young German boy and his grotesque father. The hundred dead Jewish bodies that lie inside seem like an afterthought. In one instant, 120 minutes worth of a heartfelt story loses all its purpose.