So inept has Hollywood become at delivering rousing inspiration that it’s something of a shock when a mainstream filmmaker (albeit one from England, working in India) delivers an authentically affecting crowd-pleaser. Slumdog Millionaire has all the trappings of an awards-season schmaltz-fest, charting the story of an uneducated Indian teenage street rat named Jamal (Dev Patel) whose amazing success on the local telecast of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire lands him in prison on suspicion of cheating. There, the night before he’s to compete for the ultimate cash prize, Jamal explains to a police inspector (Irfan Khan) how he knew the answers to each question, with flashbacks elucidating the alternately miserable and joyous life experiences—living on the streets and on the run with self-interested older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and swoon-worthy beauty Latika (Freida Pinto)—that gave him the necessary pieces of information to progress on the show. It’s a memory-narrated structure that superficially recalls that of The Usual Suspects.
Rather than crime-drama trickery, though, Danny Boyle’s film (co-directed with Loveleen Tandan) roots itself in cynicism-free celebration of fate, love and social camaraderie, conveying with big, bold colors, extreme camera angles, and boisterous Indian music the way in which Jamal’s hardscrabble past has presciently informed his potentially fortunate, famous future. Slumdog Millionaire argues that the most valuable knowledge is that learned first-hand, though no intimate familiarity with the Bollywood cinema Boyle is paying respect to is necessary to be swept up in the director’s rollicking, heartfelt saga.
Orphaned after his mother is killed during an anti-Muslim riot, seven-year-old Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) is left to fend for himself in a decidedly Dickensian Mumbai, where he, Salim and Latika soon find themselves working for a Fagin-ish exploitative villain who plans to make his beggar-workers more profitable by permanently blinding them. The struggle of lower caste Indians in economically developing Mumbai is richly captured with a mixture of sensitivity and swagger, Boyle’s cinematography so enlivened by the sights and sounds of India’s crowded shantytowns and bustling metropolis, as well as the careening emotional fluctuations of his protagonists, that every cockeyed shot, starburst hue and speed-freak pan—a music video-ish aesthetic harmoniously in sync with individual and national character—seems primed to explode. It’s a style matched by Simon Beaufoy’s breakneck, expansive melodramatic script, which favors outsized sentimentality and humor, the latter ably established by an early sequence in which young, pint-sized Jamal braves a dip in an outhouse pool of shit to nab an autograph from a beloved movie star.
Boyle’s is a fairy tale of upward mobility in which the indefatigable Jamal’s devotion to protecting and—after Salim becomes a murderous gangster and turns traitor on his sibling—reuniting with Latika is predicated on unwavering faith in love. That destiny favors the pure-of-heart who are disadvantaged and romantic is an unabashedly mushy concept, and yet Boyle’s direction is ecstatic, enthralled by the notion that kindness and generosity in the face of hardship have a way of paying dividends in the most unexpected, circuitous ways. Jamal faces down two gangsters, the police and a dastardly game show host on his way to the program’s 20-million rupee final question, an improbable path forged by an unwillingness to accept social standing as fixed that, eventually, unites him with the country at large.
Slumdog Millionaire is fantasy yet its hyperactively effervescent (if still personal, intimate) portrait of both ingrained social barriers and altruism’s ability to demolish them is genuine and sweet. And although these qualities occasionally falter during some overly broad comedic wrong notes, the film nonetheless possesses a gripping aesthetic and emotional dynamism that can only be expressed, finally, via prototypical Bollywood dance-choreography pageantry.