By Roger Moore
A poor orphan wins a game show jackpot in this tale set in modern India.
New affluence confronts abject poverty and upward mobility clashes with the ancient caste system in Danny Boyle’s bracing and brilliant new film, “Slumdog Millionaire.” The British filmmaker wears his Irish heart on his sleeve for this taut, tense and witty tale of human tragedy and triumphant humanity set against the sweep of modern India.
Based on a Vikas Swarup novel, it is the story of Jamal, a poor orphan who finds himself on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” But this uneducated teenager, a “chai wallah” who serves tea in a local complaint call center, shouldn’t have the answers to these questions. We meet him as he’s being tortured to find out how he cheated.
Jamal (Dev Patel) is unwavering. And through a series of stunning flashbacks intercut with footage of his unlikely TV appearance, we see the horrific life that brought him to this place, the TV quiz answers that this life taught him.
The Boyle of “Trainspotting” is evident as the child Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, a wonder) recalls the day his mother was murdered by an anti-Muslim Hindu mob, the shocking Oliver Twist life he and his tougher older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) endure as orphans, complete with a monstrous Fagan figure who kidnaps children to run as pickpockets and beggars.
But the Boyle of “Millions” is here, too, as tiny Jamal reaches out to the orphaned girl, Latika (Rubina Ali) whom he only wants to protect, but can’t.
In “City of God” fashion, Jamal and Salim mature into grizzled street hustlers, thieves who prey on tourists at the Taj Mahal, posing as inept tour guides. But always, the “good” brother is looking for Latika, yearning to rescue her from whatever misery life has sentenced her to.
The glory of the film is its vitality, the sense that even in young, unschooled and uncared for children camping out in a trash dump, there is humanity and a fierce ingenuity. These boys survive, and as India rises out above its perpetual poverty, so do they. When the older Salim (Madhur Mittal) casts his hand across the soaring skyline of modern Mumbai, risen from old Bombay, he can say in all honesty, “India is at the center of the world.”
Boyle cast the Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor as the smarmy game show host, the man who mocks, insults, teases and tempts Jamal (in Hindi and English) through the prizes. And the gorgeous Freida Pinto is the older Latika, girl of Jamal’s dreams, a survivor in her own right.
“Slumdog Millionaire” is an emotional roller coaster, a “ticking clock” thriller, a tragic-comic blend of the modern and the ancient. Like opera and soap opera, it tugs at the heart and flings obstacles in the way of our star-crossed kids. Like many an ancient tale from the Far East, it embraces fate. And never has the phrase “It is written” taken us on a more thrilling ride.