You have to go some to match the emotional power of Rocky. Slumdog Millionaire just about does it.
Slumdog Millionaire has no stars you’ve heard of. Storywise, it isn’t that different from a million other underdog movies, but director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) makes it ring in your eyes and dazzle your ears. It’s more an experience than a film.
Jamal Malik is a young Muslim growing up in Bombay/Mumbai, India, who, as the film begins, is both appearing on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and, in scenes that may be either flashbacks or flashforwards, getting interrogated and tortured by police. It emerges that the police are beating him because of his appearance on the game show: They think he knows the answers because he cheated. No uneducated ragamuffin could possibly know so much.
For the rest of the movie, Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) toggle between these two situations and what lies behind them: Jamal’s dire life. In a toilet scene that’s a riposte to the famous one in Trainspotting, Jamal literally dives into the sewage in order to gain the autograph of an Indian film star. It isn’t an experience anyone would ever forget — which is handy, because the film star’s name happens to be the answer to one of the questions he will later be asked on the game show.
The other questions, too, happen to coincide with Jamal’s alternately heartbreaking and hilarious memories. He was a little boy when a day of larking around ended with his mother getting killed in a religious riot in a slum that Boyle frames as just a hopeless molecule in the universe of Indian poverty. For a long time, though, slum life is going to seem like the good old days to Jamal. He and his older brother Salim, a born criminal who will harden into a gangster, are alone in the world, sleeping where they can and eating what they can scrounge.