Danny Boyle’s brilliant new film, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, is the improbable tale of how innocence triumphs against the most seemingly impossible odds. It begins and ends on the fateful night when Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a former slum resident, plaything of an indifferent world, and current tea-boy in Mumbai, is about to answer a question on India’s version of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. The right answer will win him 20 million rupees. The wrong answer will strip him of the 10 million he’s already won. The thing is, Jamal could care less about the money. That’s his brand of innocence. After suffering poverty, the exploitation by strangers and his own wayward brother, and a series of blows literal and metaphorical that have rained down on Jamal more or less continuously in the course of his life, he still believes in destiny and that his own destiny is a girl named Latika.
He film unfolds as Jamal, once again suffering a blow, finds himself being interrogated at a police station after winning the 10 million rupees. Interrogation in this case taking the form of waterboarding, electric shock, and the ticked off ennui of the inspector in charge (Irfan Khan). How is it, the inspector wonders, that an uneducated slumdog can answer questions that would stump the best and the brightest. How can this slumdog have had to use a lifeline for the simplest of questions? And how can this not be cheating? One by one they go through each question, and with each question, the reason for Jamal’s knowledge becomes a chapter of Jamal’s life, recalled in chronological order, because this is fiction, but fiction of the first order that gracefully overcomes the convenience of random questions falling in that order. The story is that absorbing, the characters that compelling. The identity of the biggest star in India recalls the first, but not the last, betrayal by his brother Samir. A question of religious iconography dredges up a religious riot where police stand by indifferently as the brothers are orphaned and they meet Latika, similarly orphaned. The face on the American $100 bill becomes a meditation on love and of loss.
Filming on location in India, Boyle has translated the kinetic vibrancy of India into a dazzling visual rhythm. This is a place of poverty that is robust rather than demoralized, and it is that energy that drives the story. Patel is no holy fool, he is, rather, an open, eager heart bruised but not defeated. Madhur Mittal, as his hot-headed brother is more complicated as the story demands, but he doesn’t pander to an audience for sympathy even while regretting his sins, well, most of them anyway and hinting as the weakness that leads to violence. Latika, an often absent object of Jamal’s longing for most of the film is tidily summed up in Freida Pinto’s smile, seen in a flashback through the film as Jamal clings to that one image as he clings with a dogged determination to the certainty of a happy ending for them. Jamal, Samir, and Latika are played by three sets of actors, preteen, adolescent, and twentysomething, in the course of their lives. Well matched in looks and temperament, they form a seamless continuum from pre-teen waifs to adults with a strong emotional arc that never falters.
The panorama of India is presented with awe, but not naivte. For those of Jamal’s class, it is a brutal place, but with script by Simon Beaufoy and based on the book “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup, and direction by Boyle, assisted by Indian co-director Loveleen Tanden, that is astute, honest, and never cynical, that very brutality is what gives Jamal his strength without stripping him of his idealism. A child of the slums who has in his time broken many laws, he has never betrayed a trust, and he has never lost the sweetness of his nature. One of the most lyrical moments in the film sums it up with an economical and clear-eyed poetry. Jamal at the Taj Mahal, a tribute to another great love story, enthralled by an outdoor performance there of an opera about Orpheus and his lost love, Eurydice. Samir is using the opportunity to swipe the wallets of the audience, Jamal is lost in the story he doesn’t know sung in a language he can’t understand. The power of the emotion resonates in his skinny frame, his hands stayed from their appointed task of wealth redistribution, watching wide-eyed. Boyle, cutting from the dream world of the opera back to Jamal finds the contact point between the two. When Jamal finds himself seated before a condescendingly unctuous game show host (Anil Kapoor, slick with more than a whiff of menace) in a spangly suit and a perfectly sculpted hair helmet, there is nothing there to impress him, nor to intimidate him.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a perfect rhapsody that within its confines of one seemingly small life, finds the key to life itself. Smart, entertaining, wildly romantic and bitingly gritty all at the same time, its haunting images, low humor, and giddy delight in true love make for a film that is one of the best of this or any other year.