What happens to a contestant who has won big on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” once the studio lights have darkened and the audience has filed out? Wonderful, enviable things, we assume. Not in this Mumbai-based fable from Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later). In its opening scenes, an 18-year-old orphan named Jamal (Dev Patel) has just become a national hero by winning the 20 million rupee grand prize. Moments later he is being tortured by police.
This is par for the course for the poor kid. It seems barely to faze him, even when electrodes are clamped on his toes and he is zapped repeatedly by a sadistic inspector (Irrfan Khan). After all, Jamal has grown up on the streets of one of India’s most impoverished mega-slums and survived any number of almost unimaginable horrors. That’s why the show’s producers turned him over to the authorities: It’s inconceivable to them that an uneducated “slumdog” could have responded correctly to the questions he was asked without cheating. The irony is that it’s precisely Jamal’s lifelong series of degradations and calamities that provided him with the answers.
The premise is something of a stretch. The police play a tape of the young man’s appearances on the show, and, question by question, he explains to them how some incident in his life coincidentally provided him with the needed information. Boyle cuts continually between the program, the police station and flashbacks of Jamal’s traumatic childhood. If the structure isn’t always conducive to momentum, the story is consistently engaging.
We watch as Jamal’s mother is slain in an anti-Muslim religious riot, leaving him and his older brother Salim (played as an adult by Madhur Mittal) to fend for themselves. They eventually befriend a homeless girl by the name of Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto) and together endure a series of ordeals straight out of Dickens. In a particularly horrific sequence, the three are enticed by a seemingly generous and caring individual (Ankur Vikal) to take up residence at his orphanage with dozens of other children of the street. They think they’ve died and gone to heaven.
The gruesome truth is that the “orphanage” is nothing more than a ruthlessly run criminal operation; it not only forces the kids to bring in money by begging, but disfigures them so they’ll arouse maximum sympathy. Vikal’s character makes the children learn a song with lyrics taken from the work of a prominent Indian poet. Knowing the name of that poet years later helps Jamal win the 20 million.
And that’s pretty much how the movie works. The script, by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A, has its share of lighter moments as well. There’s a wonderful comic stretch where Jamal is thrown off a train not far from the Taj Mahal. Always on the alert for a way to turn bad luck into good, he inserts himself into the mass of foreigners and poses as a tour guide, concocting fact after fabulous fact as he escorts an American couple through the edifice. His reward: A $100 bill. Which comes in handy both then and years later, when one of the quiz show’s questions is Which famous American face graces the $100 bill?
Slumdog Millionaire is a fairy tale told with no shortage of style and a great instinct for the interesting touch. The program’s host (Anil Kapoor), for example, bears an uncanny resemblance to Dick Clark, and the viewer has to wonder whether that factored into Boyle’s casting him. The cast is uniformly credible and compelling, the camerawork is striking, the climactic Bollywood dance sequence is a rousing masterstroke, and the screenplay is a clever and neatly executed contrivance.
I’m not sure the movie merits quite the level of award-season buzz it’s receiving. But its portrait of friendships fractured and finally healed is undeniably winning.