Extreme images of Mumbai

Sometimes, when movies coincide with current events, it's not the message that proves eerily prescient. It's the medium — especially the way it looks and feels.

"Slumdog Millionaire" has become an audience favorite largely because it tells a classic Dickensian story.

A poor, dispossessed orphan, at large in the meanest neighborhoods of a bustling metropolis, makes his way in the world against all odds and, in the bargain, reunites with the love of his life.

But over the past week, "Slumdog Millionaire" has taken on a new and wholly unexpected resonance as violence supplanted the film's optimism.

The movie is set in Mumbai, the Indian subcontinent's "maximum city," where dire poverty and immense wealth slam up against each with increasing force, born of Mumbai's role in the globalized economy.

Much of the film was made on location, including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the train station where dozens of people were killed or injured Wednesday as part of several coordinated attacks throughout the city.

Directed by Danny Boyle in a frenetic, hand-held style that plunges viewers into the pulsing, contradictory life of the city, taking them on a headlong tour of the city's sprawling slums, nascent condo developments, crowded streets and touristy outskirts, "Slumdog Millionaire's" hyperkinetic, nonlinear approach anticipates how we have gotten news out of Mumbai over the past few days, as information appeared in an unsettling montage of carnage, explosions, grief and confusion.

Boyle said he was waiting frantically for news of the film's cast and crew after the attacks. The critically acclaimed film used a cast and crew of about 170 people, along with hundreds if not thousands more local extras.

"As far as we've been able to find out, all of our cast and crew and their families are okay," Boyle said. "Otherwise we're just watching the news like anybody else."

Written by Simon Beaufoy, a third of the film is in Hindi. It follows the story of an orphan from the slums of Mumbai, who appears on India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" to win over the girl he loves.

Boyle, regarded as one of Britain's best directors, said Mumbai was an "extraordinary" city.

"There's too many people, not enough water, not enough anything. But it works. I mean, somehow, there's a pattern. You can't read the pattern, and if you think you can you're foolhardy, but it does work.

"It's one of those places mankind has designed to make the most intense experience of what it is to be a human being."

Shortly after the attacks began, around 9 p.m., in seven locations throughout the city, the first images began to appear. We saw the Chhatrapati station, its floors bloodied, abandoned luggage strewn in a frenzied tableau. At the elegant Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel, flames burst from a window.

Across the city, at the Oberoi hotel, another window framed the silhouette of a lone hostage, his shadow backlit by a blue TV-screen glow. The lively, jammed streets of "Slumdog Millionaire" were now emptied, the city's newly minted rooftops manned by commandos.

This time the shaky, jangled images weren't the artistic choices of a style-conscious director, but the only way to tell a life-and-death story that was unfolding, inexplicably and chaotically, in real time.

In its own way, "Slumdog Millionaire" even touches on the issues that are thought to underlie the recent violence. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the assailants are believed to be Islamic extremists, motivated by the historic conflict between India's Hindu majority and Muslims.

In "Slumdog Millionaire" the protagonist, Jamal, a Muslim, watches as his mother is murdered by a Hindu mob.

But the brief thematic echoes between "Slumdog Millionaire" and present-day Mumbai aren't nearly as compelling as the aesthetic ones. It's not the content of the film but its form that is so uncannily anticipatory, with the film's distinctively jumbled visual style — in large part inspired by the quick, smash-cut editing of contemporary media — providing an artful counterpoint to the chaotic real-time news images viewers are likely to see on their TV and computer screens.

Of course, once "Slumdog Millionaire's" debt to Dickens is made clear, the audience can watch Jamal's often graphically violent trials and tribulations knowing that his story will have a happy ending. Mumbai, for all its chaos, poverty and cultural clashes, becomes a place of possibility, where a resourceful young man can, by dint of hard work and moral rectitude, attain his heart's desire.

As for the real-life events that are still unfolding, the outlook is far less reassuring. Viewers who were introduced to Mumbai for the first time this week came to know the city just as intimately as have the fans of "Slumdog Millionaire," albeit far more anxiously.

Mumbai is still indisputably vibrant, cosmopolitan and full of life, but at least this week, the Maximum City is the dizzying, confounding place where hearts can be irretrievably broken.

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