Driven by fantastic energy and a torrent of vivid images of India old and new, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a blast. Danny Boyle’s film uses the dilemma of a poor teenager suspected of cheating on the local version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’’ to tell a story of social mobility that is positively Dickensian in its attention to detail and the extremes of poverty and wealth within a culture. Originally a Warner Independent title, the picture has just been acquired by Fox Searchlight for release in the U.S., where it will open at Thanksgiving, although Warner Bros. retains an interest. Tasty item looks to catch on in a big way with young, adventurous and merely curious viewers in wide specialized release.
Surging with colors, music, the ever-present swarming multitudes and the vitality of its youthful characters, the pic begins disturbingly with the sight of police torturing a young man to make him confess how he’s been able to make a run up to the ultimate prize of 20 million rupees on the nation’s most popular quizshow. “I knew the answers,” the sullen fellow insists, and Simon Beaufoy’s intricate and cleverly structured script illustrates how that came to be.
Spurred by intermittent interludes devoted to 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) correctly answering the multiple-choice questions posed by “Millionaire” host Prem (Indian superstar Anil Kapoor) in front of a boisterous live studio audience, flashbacks slashingly present the devastatingly difficult but opportunistic childhoods of Jamal and his brother, Salim. Living in Mumbai’s most squalid slum, they lose their mother in a mob attack on Muslims. Forced to forage and live by their wits as they commit petty crimes, the boys make their lives more interesting when they accept a new partner, the adorable Latika, who smites 7-year-old Jamal to the quick.
The street kids learn more smarts from a Fagin-like operator who runs a sort of criminal orphanage in a remote area, sending his charges into the city for dishonest days’ work. When it seems Jamal is about to have his eyes gouged out to make him a higher-earning beggar, the three make a desperate run for it. The boys manage to jump on a speeding train, but not Latika.
As these and many other stories of tragedy and exhilaration play out, it becomes clear that each one has taught Jamal something that directly informs his success on “Millionaire.” This device could have seemed contrived, but Boyle and Beaufoy, working from a novel by Vikas Swarup, uninsistently make the case that the most useful intelligence, in all its forms, comes from life experience.
Granted, the two brothers, once into their teens, don’t end up on the same road. In the film’s lightest and most amusing passage, they become self-appointed tour guides at the Taj Mahal, giving visitors funny misinformation and pulling little scams in sequences that effectively present touristic India from the p.o.v. of mischievous local youths. Shortly, however, their criminal enterprises become more serious, forcing them to scram back to Mumbai, where they find Latika in dubious circumstances.
Jamal takes small-time jobs and forlornly carries the torch for Latika while Salim rises in the criminal ranks, and the pic’s final stretch provides stunning views of enormous bad-taste skyscrapers rising from the very ground where the boys so insignificantly began their lives. The build-up to Jamal’s climactic appearances on “Millionaire” are milked for all they’re worth, as the entire country hangs on his every answer.
The tough look at poverty and crime at all levels of society shoves the occasional coincidences and questionable plot developments firmly to the side, and the rush Boyle manifestly got from shooting such an intense story on these locations is fully felt in the film. The logistic considerations alone must have been mind-boggling, as a majority of scenes include what seem like hundreds of bystanders. Lenser Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera is often on the prowl or the run, and it sometimes dashes through jammed streets and shantytown alleys at the speed of the sprinting kids themselves. Images are stunning sans arty posturing, and Chris Dickens’ editing is breathless without being exhausting.
Mostly nonpro kids in the main roles are entirely credible and segue without confusion as three thesps assume each of the principals at different ages. Kapoor is perfect as the preening, melodramatic and devious gameshow host, and vet Irrfan Khan invests the interrogating officer with varied shades as matters proceed.
As drama and as a look at a country increasingly entering the world spotlight, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a vital piece of work by an outsider who’s clearly connected with the place. Musical elements provide a major kick, as does a rousing and unexpected end-credits dance number at a train station.