Thursday, April 30, 2009

From Shawshank to Mumbai

I recently saw this year's Oscar winner for Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire. The story is simple: Jamal (Dev Patel) is a young man who serves beverages for a tech support company in India and has spent most of his life in poverty, yet as the film opens he is one question away from winning the twenty-million rupee top prize on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" As the police interrogate him on suspicion of cheating, he tells his life story, explaining how he knows the answers to the questions and why he got on the gameshow in the first place. Naturally, there's a girl involved, Latika, played by the fetching Freida Pinto. It is an uplifting movie, if not always a pleasant one. In some ways, it reminds me of one of my longtime favorites, The Shawshank Redemption.

Shawshank, based on a short story by Stephen King, concerns Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a banker convicted of double homicide and sent to Shawshank State Prison. He quickly makes enemies, a few friends, and begins formulating plans to make the system work to his advantage. Within a matter of years, he's doing tax returns for the prison guards, expanding the library, tutoring petty thieves in grammar, and managing to remain optimistic that one way or another he's going to get out.

Both films start off as disturbing and violent--no punches are pulled in showing the viewer that Andy and Jamal have tough lives. Both characters find themselves literally crawling through excrement to achieve an objective. Both are abused, physically and psychologically, and both face the threat of losing even what little they have. And both manage to confound and shock their antagonists-Shawshank has a twist that would have made Rod Serling proud. Both films have that wonderful achievement of bringing the audience to an honest ending that seems light years away from where the film started. It seems perfectly natural to watch the Bollywood-style line dance "Jai ho" (a lyric that connotes victory in the Hindi language) at the end of Slumdog and join in its sense of exhileration. Shawshank also has a powerfully uplifting ending, though thankfully we don't have to watch Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman dancing around to Indian pop music. So if your spirits need a lift, I highly recommend either of these films.

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