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.
Jamal spots a lonely girl, Latika, outside of the shipping container the two boys are sharing in the rain and wants to invite her to join them. Salim isn’t interested. What use can she be? But Jamal will never quite be able to free his mind of the image of Latika. He’ll encounter her several more times as they grow up and each time she’ll have grown more beautiful.
Jamal and Salim get swooped up by a ring of savvy men who run an orphanage. The men give the kids shelter and meals, which doesn’t sound so bad, and all they ask in return is that the children beg for coins in the streets, which appears to be the only career option going anyway. Things take a more sinister turn, though, and the boys again find themselves on their own as Jamal tries to find out what happened to Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto). It looks like she’s going to work the streets too, but not as a beggar.
Jamal’s struggles are reminiscent of Oliver Twist’s, and to Dickens’ readers what went on in an orphanage or a ring of thieves was foreign territory. Oliver Twist must have been a shocking book at the time. Slumdog Millionaire works so well in part because it’s so foreign; practically every frame of it reminds us how vastly fortunate we are in the West, where one of the chief problems faced by the poor is not starvation but obesity.
Sound like a depressing film? It’s the opposite. As Jamal (played as an adult by Dev Patel) climbs, literally and figuratively, out of the cesspool, Boyle peppers the soundtrack with a pop-tronica mix that matches his hero’s irrepressible spirit and the riot of colors. Jamal grasps every opportunity that falls to him in impish, exhilarating, and very funny ways. One minute he and his brother are riding on top of a train, where Jamal hangs upside down to reach in through a passenger window to make a grab at lunch; the next they’re at the Taj Mahal, where Jamal reinvents himself as a fake tour guide. As a young man he’ll pose as a dishwasher to talk his way into the home of a rich man. That’s where he will meet with the elusive Latika once again.
Jamal’s pursuit of her is as hapless as Forrest Gump’s for Jenny’s — in both cases, the girl doesn’t seem worthy of the devotion. Yet a gauzy, almost holy vision of her in a train station is all it takes to keep Jamal going, and us. He firmly believes that it is written for them to be together. Slumdog Millionaire is a beautiful, rich, endearing movie, the best of the year so far.
Directed by Danny Boyle
Starring: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Mia Drake
4 stars/ 4
116 minutes/Rated R