Childhood friendships can last a lifetime and have profound consequences. Both Slumdog Millionaire and The Kite Runner tell sweeping stories in the lives of two boys — a set of brothers in the former and a set of friends who act like brothers in the latter. They use narratives that cut back-and-forth across time, forcing them to use multiple sets of actors to portray their characters as boys turn to men. The contemporary story lines are deepened by the children’s experiences we see in flashback. Both films started as novels, force viewers (English-speaking ones anyway) to read a few subtitles and share settings — India and Afghanistan — that have been scarred by terrorism as deeply as the United States. And even though Slumdog Millionaire is assured of a “Best Picture” Oscar nomination this year (and currently, is the odds-on favorite to win), it’s still going to have to hold off The Kite Runner to win this Smackdown…
Slumdog Millionaire feels like it’s giving you an authentic slice of life in the real India. As directed by Danny Boyle from a screenplay by Simon Bradley based on a novel by Vikas Swarup, it tells the story of Jamel, an impoverished orphan from the slums of Mumbai who, as the film begins, is amazingly winning on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire against all the odds. He’s being accused of cheating because nobody can believe a petty thief with his background could possibly know what he knows. And there’s the cheat which isn’t a cheat at all. Flashbacks reveal exactly how hard-won the knowledge is that is allowing him to become a sensation. His story is embellished by his on-going relationship with his equally adept survivor brother Salim and the improbable romance with a girl named Latika.
The Defending Champion
The Kite Runner opens with a couple of young Afghan boys flying kites in Kabul back in 1978 — a time before the Russians or the Taliban or even the Americans got involved. It’s directed by Marc Forster from a screenplay by David Benioff based on an extremely popular (Starbucks sold it) novel by Khaled Hosseini. The boys look like brothers, but they’re not. Amir comes from a family of wealth in a far more vibrant Afghanistan, and Hassan is the son of the family’s long-time servant. Hassan’s a kite runner, which means he can figure out where a kite is going to land and run to be there before it hits the ground. One day bullies rape Hassan, and Amir, who could try to help, sneaks away instead. Back in present day (well, 2000 anyway) America, Amir gets a phone call that tells him to come home because “there is a way to be good again.” Amir returns to his home country — a year before 9/11 — to face off against the Taliban in order to come to the aid of the friend he should have stood by so many years before.
Both of these films, again, rely on the use of cross-cutting flashbacks to tell their stories. Slumdog Millionaire is more focused: it’s all happening in a compressed time period in the present, and the stakes, while huge from a personal point-of-view, really do boil down to winning at a game show. The Kite Runner lets both past and present breathe more (not necessarily a good thing) but the stakes are significant — life and death.
The performances in these films are uniformly good, and some are great. Dev Patel who plays the game-show playing Jamel in Slumdog Millionaire is perfection. You see the memories of his past even behind the passive mask he’s managed to make of his face, even while he’s in the game-show hot seat. In contrast, the key performances in The Kite Runner do not belong to the main character. Instead, they go to Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada who plays young Hassan and to Homayoun Ershadi, an Iranian actor who plays Baba, the father.
While Marc Forster is a magnificent director overall, his The Kite Runner falls short of the sheer breathless exhiliration that Danny Boyle brings to Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a rags-to-riches story with a powerful propulsion that never, ever falters. Advantage: Boyle.
Finally, and this is a key element of difference, Slumdog Millionaire serves up a romantic film that honestly transcends culture. Yes, there’s a relationship in The Kite Runner, but no real romance. Another win for this latest sensation.
There’s already Oscar buzz for Slumdog Millionaire, something that was hoped for but not achieved for The Kite Runner. There’s good reason that Slumdog Millionaire will be a film you’ll be talking about a lot soon. Its appeal crosses national boundaries. It’s a crowd-pleaser and a phenomenon. People love this film. Everyone I know who has seen it keeps talking about it with everybody they know who hasn’t seen it. If you missed The Kite Runner, you’ll get by. But if you haven’t seen Slumdog Millionaire, don’t wait for the DVD. Look it up, find a theater, and drive over as soon as you can. That way you’ll be the one who can enthrall your friends.