In Slumdog Millionaire, directed by the whiz-bang fabulist Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Sunshine), Jamal (Dev Patel), an 18-year-old Indian orphan who has spent his life scavenging on the streets, lands as a contestant on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and he wins — big. Don’t worry, I’m not giving anything away: An opening title informs us that he wins 20 million rupees (in U.S. currency, that translates roughly as…an awesome amount of cash). The host (Anil Kapoor), who looks like Omar Sharif if he’d been a high-end vacuum-cleaner salesman, models his act on the British version of the show, which may be why he’s a lot more condescending than the courtly Regis Philbin. Mercilessly, he mocks Jamal for being a ”chaiwalla” (a boy who serves tea — extremely low on the class totem pole). Yet the kid is immune to insults — or, it seems, nerves — and he becomes a folk hero as he keeps knocking out those impeccable final answers.
The prospect of an uneducated orphan from the slums of Mumbai winning a pot of gold on a game show that hinges on worldly knowledge is, of course, the stuff of purest fairy tales. Based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A, with a script by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), Slumdog Millionaire is nothing if not an enjoyably far-fetched piece of rags-to-riches wish fulfillment. It’s like the Bollywood version of a Capra fable sprayed with colorful drops of dark-side-of-the-Third-World squalor. A framing device has Jamal being interrogated by Mumbai cops who want him to confess how he won the show (they believe, wrongly, that he cheated). To let us know how he won, the film keeps flashing back from Jamal’s stint on Millionaire to scenes of his life as an innocently scheming Dickensian ragamuffin.
Orphaned during a riot, the young Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) skips around India with his older brother, Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail), the two boys scrambling to survive in a bustling, hothouse landscape of exploitative treachery. They’re detained, along with a bunch of other orphans, by a vile crook who doesn’t just use them as beggars; in a touch to give Fagin the willies, he likes to blind his orphans by pouring boiling liquid into their eyes, because then they’ll earn more sympathy from passersby. The two escape, along with a girl, Latika (Rubina Ali), whom Jamal falls for and keeps trying to rescue. But just as we’re reeling from this close encounter with evil, the movie reveals its true, happy design: This episode, and others like it, provides Jamal with the precise piece of information — in this case, a song title — he’ll draw on, years later, to answer the questions on Millionaire. The inventor of the revolver, the figure on a $100 bill (he learns that one while scamming U.S. tourists at the Taj Mahal)— all the knowledge he’ll need is offered by his life of hardship.
As Slumdog Millionaire jumps from the fear and degradation of Jamal’s childhood to the snippet of game-show victory each episode provides, the audience relaxes, secure in the knowledge that the hardship and cruelty on display are, in their way, as much of a fairy tale as the mad-money TV triumph they presage. Slumdog Millionaire is brash and lively and compulsively watchable, but with Boyle working at full boil, it is also an unabashed concoction — a movie that turns the horror of broken Indian childhoods into a whooshingly blithe, in-your-face picaresque. Not since Les Miz have you felt this gooey-good about kids whose lives were this bad.
We follow Jamal and Salim at three different ages (with two sets of nicely matched tyke actors), but it’s when Jamal is 18, and played by Dev Patel, that the movie takes on a touch of gravitas. Patel is tall, with a serious thin mouth, sloping eyebrows, and a wiry boyish toughness rather like that of Shia LaBeouf; he holds the camera while appearing to do nothing — the mark of a star. Madhur Mittal, as the older Salim, is a study in contrast — a permed weakling who goes to work for a gangster — but I wish the grown-up Latika (Freida Pinto), whom Jamal finds enslaved to that same thug, looked less like a supermodel. It’s all part of the movie’s fanciful sentimental tidiness. Slumdog Millionaire rousingly celebrates the escape from the slums, but since it?s Jamal?s childhood that allows him to win big on TV (and to win that girl), you could also say that the movie ennobles poverty. B
Danny Boyle and Dev Patel talk about Slumdog Millionaire