Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire tells a pretty basic rags-to-riches tale that has oddly charming and wrenchingly violent sidetracks. It begins when Jamal Malik’s [Dev Patel] hot streak on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire culminates in a ten million rupee total before he is taken away by police on charges of fraud/cheating. They use all kinds of methods of torture but he insists he knew the answers.
As the Police Inspector [Irrfan Khan] and Jamal watch a tape of his performance on the show, Jamal tells the Inspector how his childhood experiences taught him the answers to questions ranging from an individual cricketer’s record to knowing the name of the star of a certain film. As Jamal tells his story, we watch as he, his brother Salim, and a girl named Latika come out of the slums of Mumbai. While Jamal has always been a good kid, Salim [Madhur Mittal] has chosen another, easier path – and he loses touch with both of them.
Slumdog Millionaire’s cinematography crackles with energy and lays out the slums of Mumbai without apology – the poverty, the race violence, the criminal activity. It is a place with a veneer charm that isn’t quite enough to cover its grimy underbelly. Jamal’s path to the famous quiz show is fraught with all kinds of perils, spiritually as well as physically – and when he does well on the show, the immediate question has to be, how can a call centre assistant – “a chai wallah” – possibly possess all this specific knowledge? But Jamal isn’t putting his hard won street education to work for the money – he’s hoping that Latika [Freida Pinto] will see him and find her way to him. Love, he hopes, will conquer all.
This may be Danny Boyle’s finest film. The characters are engaging – even while they’re conning their way along – and smart [as Taj Mahal tour guides, for example, they improvise all kinds of material to give their tourists the “real” story]. Somehow, though, as the boys grow up, Salim becomes a professional criminal while Jamal, well, he gets tea for the people in the call centre. Latika, however, comes through even more dire circumstances as a prostitute and then the mistress of Salim’s boss.
Slumdog Millionaire is one of those movies that energize its audience. It’s all about hope and staying true to oneself, no matter what trials one must overcome. Like Beat Takeshi’s The Blind Swordsman Zatoichi, Boyle gives us a bonus burst of energy over the closing credits as the crowd in the train station breaks into a Bollywood song and dance number that encapsulates the joy of the film.
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