Take the grit of Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! and mix it with the romantic exuberance of a Bollywood spectacle and you have the thoroughly charming Slumdog Millionaire. Director Danny Boyle’s "rags to raja" fable is an adorable mutt of a movie that audiences will take to their hearts. (No great prediction there — it grabbed the People’s Choice award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.)
Boyle’s rollicking vision of contemporary India – one bold foot in the 21st century, the other still deeply mired in its ancient past – is hugely exhilarating.
This story of a dirt-poor Mumbai orphan who becomes a winning contestant on India’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? also owes a big debt to Dickens. Like a South Asian Oliver Twist, it combines a realistic depiction of poverty and crime with a satisfying fairy tale in which a poor but worthy lad finally gets his just rewards. Even if you dismiss the film's fairy-tale part – and it does get corny near the end – you can't help but like it. Boyle’s rollicking vision of contemporary India – one bold foot in the 21st century, the other still deeply mired in its ancient past – is hugely exhilarating.
Boyle plunges us into the story from the first frames, in which the young hero is, in fact, having his head plunged under water. Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is being grilled by a brutal cop, but despite the torture, the stoic 18-year-old refuses to break. What’s his supposed crime? He’s won 10 million rupees on the Millionaire TV show, which is unheard of for a lowly Muslim chai wallah (tea servant) with no education. He must be cheating.
Jamal insists that he isn’t. When a police inspector (Irfan Khan) finally allows him to explain, Jamal reveals how he aced the quiz show’s esoteric questions. Each winning answer has its origins in an episode from his life – a neat framing device for a series of flashbacks that trace his unlikely journey from obscurity to the glare of national television.
It begins in the Mumbai slums, where the young Jamal and his older brother Salim are left parentless after their mother is killed by a mob of Hindu fanatics. The two boys befriend a fellow orphan, a little girl named Latika, and the trio – fancying themselves the Three Musketeers – set out to fend for themselves. When kindly men bearing enticing bottles of cola urge them to come join their orphanage, it seems too good to be true. In fact, the "orphanage" is really a criminal operation that exploits child beggars. The boys make a daring escape, leaving Latika behind, and begin a picaresque string of adventures in which they snitch food from railway dining cars, gull naïve western tourists at the Taj Mahal and pull whatever scams they can in order to get by.
These early scenes recall the filthy vitality of Boyle’s seminal Trainspotting (1995) – he does for Mumbai’s sweltering slums what his earlier film did for Edinburgh’s grotty drug scene. Jamal and Salim, a pair of charming scapegraces, scamper across a squalid cityscape of crowded alleys, garbage dumps and stagnant brown rivers. Boyle even gives us a grossly funny variation on Trainspotting’s infamous loo-diving scene, involving India’s outdoor toilets.
As the boys grow up, the film captures the subcontinent’s changing face. Their slum is razed by developers, Jamal finds a job serving tea at one of Mumbai’s giant call centres and the U.K. export Millionaire has grabbed the imagination of the poverty-stricken masses with its tantalizing promise of immediate wealth.
This is not, however, The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s recent Man Booker-winning novel, which takes a far more cynical view of India’s economic boom. Simon Beaufoy’s (The Full Monty) screenplay, loosely based on the novel Q and A by Vikas Swarup, is the stuff of old-fashioned romance. Jamal is in love with Latika and determined to reunite with her – even though she becomes the reluctant moll of a powerful gangster. It’s that motivation, not a lust for rupees, which leads him to become a contestant on the quiz show.
The plot takes on a more outlandish Bollywood flavour towards the end – capped by the inevitable (and irresistible) big dance number. Still, Beaufoy’s script has some moments of pointed social commentary. The scenes of Jamal in the hot seat on Millionaire, in particular, suggest the caste prejudices that remain entrenched in India. Bollywood star Anil Kapoor (who looks a bit like the young Orson Welles) is superb as the show’s smoothly intimidating host, who refers to Jamal’s humble status with cheerful condescension.
Kapoor aside, Boyle fills the film with fresh faces – Jamal, Latika and Salim are each played by three young actors as the story takes them from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood. British TV actor Patel is sympathetic as the grown-up Jamal, a skinny, jug-eared youth whose lost-puppy look belies a street-hardened resolve. Madhur Mittal’s opportunistic Salim is the Artful Dodger to his Oliver, but with a streak of selfishness. Freida Pinto’s Latika, however, is a traditional passive beauty – you wish the movie gave her some of the spunk of her male comrades.
The children who play their younger versions almost steal the film. Boyle, who gave us a convincing kid’s view of life in his 2004 film Millions, works the same magic again, coaxing lovely, natural performances from them. The scenes with Jamal and Salim as mischievous urchins are a special delight.
The movie also has a kid’s energy. Shot with ragged brio by Dogme lensman Anthony Dod Mantle and brilliantly edited by Chris Dickens, it tears along at a breakneck pace. A.R. Rahman provides a pounding score, with songs by the British-Tamil singer-songwriter M.I.A., including her beat-heavy hit Paper Planes. M.I.A. is the musical voice of this film the way Iggy Pop was for Trainspotting.
Don’t get me wrong, though – for all the superficial similarities, Slumdog Millionaire is not in the same league as that picture. To get there, Boyle would have needed a story by the South Asian equivalent of Irvine Welsh, not Beaufoy’s amiable Dickens knock-off. Trainspotting was a thrilling but scary fix; next to it, Slumdog Millionaire is a sugar high.
Slumdog Millionaire opens in Toronto on Nov. 12, Vancouver on Nov. 21 and across Canada on Dec. 26.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.