Fans of director Danny Boyle's work will find much to appreciate in his latest film, Slumdog Millionaire, a sweeping, hopeful story about a boy in the slums of India who becomes an instant celebrity after he wins millions on India's version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. Adapted by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) off the novel Q &A by Vikas Swarup, the tale is framed within an interesting narrative structure that revolves around the young man, Jamal, being interrogated for fraud by the police, who cannot believe that a "slumdog" orphan could possibly have known the answers to the questions on the show.
Boyle uses this conceit to take us back and forth from the police station, where Jamal (Dev Patel) is tortured to get him to confess how he cheated, to his appearance on the show, to the events throughout his youth that led to him knowing the answers to the game show questions. How did a boy growing up in the slums amid piles of garbage and filth know which US president is on the one hundred dollar bill, or who invented the revolver? Boyle takes us back through Jamal's life story to show us the mean-streets education that led to him knowing the answers, while managing to avoid making the set-up feel contrived.
The scenes that take place during the game show are a masterwork of interplay and intellect, as Jamal duels verbally with wealthy, narcissistic host Prem Kumar (veteran Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor), who's sort of a Hindi version of Regis Philbin. There's a certain level of class struggle going on within the framework of the game show, pitting the wealthy, arrogant host against the soft-spoken, affable kid from the slums. Kumar, fearing that the eminently likable young man might detract from his own popularity with the audience, taunts Jamal for being a poor chaiwalla (tea bearer) and subtly -- and not so subtly -- tries to get Jamal to cash in and end his winning streak. What Kumar doesn't get is that Jamal's not really in it for the money at all.
A screenwriter friend I talked to after last night's sneak screening called Slumdog "Dickensonian" in style, and that's a fairly apt comparison. While Boyle immerses the viewer in the poverty and tragedy of life as an orphan in the slums of Mumbai, he deftly avoids delving into the murky realm of "poverty porn," which treats the lives of those caught in such circumstances gratuitously. This is a character-intensive story, with the narrative lens focused firmly on Jamal, who, in spite of growing up amidst filth, abuse and the threat of starvation, emerges with his spirit, honesty and courage intact.
The heart of the film, though, is the thread of love and friendship between Jamal and another young orphan, Latika, who's befriended by Jamal and gruffly tolerated by his older brother. The trio call themselves "The Three Musketeers" -- Jamal and his brother having been enraptured by the classic tale when they attended school before their mother died. Fate, life, and adults preying on the vulnerable youth of Mumbai's slums conspire to keep Jamal and Latika apart, but Jamal never sways from his belief that he and Latika are destined to be together.
This love story, interwoven throughout the film, lends a classical, metaphorical level to the film that adds depth to its mainstream-audience friendly, accessible surface. Orphaned children in places like Mumbai are easy prey for adults who force or coerce them into servitude as beggars, prostitutes, and criminals. Jamal's older brother succumbs to the lure of crime as a path out of poverty; Jamal, on the other hand, does what he has to in order to survive -- when you're five years old, homeless and starving while the adults around you kick you around like a dog for merely trying to scrounge enough to keep from dying, the morality of theft and ownership doesn't really amount to much -- but he never loses his sense of fairness, justice and compassion.
Jamal's pursuit of Latika is single-minded; She is the only thing in his hard-knock life that he's ever cared about other than his mother and brother. Even when Latika gives up and resigns herself to the life of abuse that it seems fate has mapped out for her, Jamal is her white knight, relentlessly fighting to free her from the prison in which beauty and destitution have trapped her.
Patel, with his wide-eyed openness and mournful brown eyes, utterly charms as Jamal -- I want to see much more from this young actor in the future -- and all the cast, including the kids who play Jamal, Latika and his brother in their childhood, bring life and energy to their roles. Sweeping cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle brings the slums of Mumbai to life, finding the beauty and humanity amidst crushing impoverishment that most of us who will see the film could never imagine surviving, much less thriving in.
There's sadness and tragedy within Slumdog Millionaire -- starvation, genocide, child prostitution and overwhelming oppression -- but there's humor, humanity and dignity as well. Boyle, stepping outside the UK to focus his lens on India, seems to have freed himself here to bring his brilliance as a director to its fullest fruition. Slumdog Millionaire is Boyle's best film to date, which is saying quite a lot; He's made a joyous, fun, and wonderfully accessible film that should play well in Toronto before moving on to wider release.