Slumdog Millionaire (Review)

Danny Boyle's Indian reality TV story is teeming with tensions

Mumbai doesn’t need an introduction to American audiences, thanks to the horrific terrorist attack on civilians there in late November.

The particulars of that attack — Pakistan-based Muslim extremists fighting predominately Hindu India’s control of Kashmir, with anti-Israel hatred thrown into the mix — don’t figure into the new fictional movie Slumdog Millionaire. But the film is teeming with the tensions and violence arising from Mumbai’s class and religious stratification. And yet, believe it or not, it’s a glorious high of a movie full of adrenaline, color and music and as deftly alive to movement as a butterfly in the wind. It is a work of hopeful, 21st-century modernism.

The world’s second-largest city, with 13.6 million people, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) is an industrious booming place — a financial, media and glamour center for all of Asia but with appalling slums full of the poor, many of them children. It is predominately Hindu but has a sizable Muslim population, and there has been sectarian violence.

Slumdog Millionaire, directed by Britain’s talented Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Millions, 28 Days Later, Shallow Grave) from an adapted screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), refers to those particulars. But it isn’t simply an update of, say, Mira Nair’s gritty 1988 Salaam Bombay!. It’s something more.

It can be as hard-edged and fast-moving as one of its street chases caught on a handheld camera cinéma vérité-style. But it’s also influenced by happy Bollywood romantic melodramas. (India’s Mumbai-based film industry, known for fairy-talelike contemporary love stories with tons of musical production numbers, is called Bollywood.)

Holding those two extremely disparate elements together are several technical strengths. Chris Dickens’ whip-snap editing moves between flashback and the present faster than an audience can notice. The rich color cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantel, who often uses high-definition video through the narrow streets and alleys, is fast and urgent. The swirling, exciting Indian-music-based Pop score by A.R. Rahman is a good bet for Oscar nominations, as is the movie itself.

But Slumdog’s secret weapon is, of all things, the way it references reality television. The story, based on a novel by Vikas Swarup, turns on the Hindi version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. A young Muslim man, still a teen, poorly educated and underclass, luckily becomes a contestant. That youth, Jamal (played winningly by Dev Patel), is going for the top prize on the slickly produced show as the film opens. His nemesis is the smarmy but canny host (Anil Kapoor), who is condescending to Jamal because of his class status.

How Jamal got that far seems incredible — so incredible, actually, that the police grab him and try to beat him into confessing that he’s cheating. (Slumdog, thus, can be compared to Robert Redford’s Quiz Show.) Instead, Jamal tells the police detective what seems an incredible tall tale of how his Mumbai survival to date has given him the life lessons needed to know answers.

The narrative structure repeatedly ebbs and flows — like the waterway in Jean Renoir’s 1951 India-set classic, The River — from flashbacks to quiz-show answers. There’s a building mystical quality to this, a bit like Moses having the Ten Commandments revealed to him one at a time. It’s an absolutely brilliant dramatic device.

Each flashback story is itself a self-contained short film. As children in a shantytown near the airport, Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khadeker) and his tougher brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismael) are excited when a movie star arrives. Only Salim locks Jamal in an outhouse, built atop an excrement pile, so he can’t see the star. How Jamal gets out of it is memorable to say the least, and a metaphor for every other crisis life will throw at him and his brother.

Those include the murder of their mother at the hands of a Hindu mob during a riot, scavenging atop a gargantuan garbage pile, escaping from a Jim Jones-like leader of child beggars who blinds his kids so they’ll get more money. Luck is sometimes with Jamal and his brother — stealing the shoes of visitors at the Taj Mahal, Jamal somehow winds up as a tourist guide. But he has trouble staying lucky. He’s also haunted by his need to rescue the love of his life Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto) from the criminal underworld. In a way, that’s why he’s on the television game show.

That love-interest part of the story has formulaic elements, it’s true, and at times it can feel hackneyed. But Slumdog basically rises above them because its overall vision is so fresh. And it even ends with a musical production number — just like Bollywood.

Like fellow British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, Boyle has a restless artistic spirit — a wanderlust — that guides him from one challenging, unusual project to another. Not all those projects are winners, but Slumdog Millionaire is definitely one. A big one. Grade: A-

Opens Dec. 12. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.
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