And now here's your Slumdog Millionaire jackpot question. It's in three parts: 1) Does the hero get the girl? 2) Does he answer the twenty-million-rupee question correctly? and 3) Is it really a crime to be poor in India? That last part is kind of tricky. Take your time. Think it over. The prize is a large tub of curried popcorn.
It isn't simply that Slumdog Millionaire is Danny Boyle's best film since Trainspotting — it's one of the most pleasing movies of 2008, period. At first glance just another Third World children-of-the-slums weepie, it transcends the limitations of that slender genre in leaps and bounds, thanks not only to director Boyle's flair for the underdog and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle's lush images but to the humor never far from the surface of the potentially maudlin story.
Jamal Malik (played by TV actor Dev Patel), a young Muslim man from Mumbai, has scored an impressive series of correct answers on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, despite the fact that he's a lowly chai wallah (tea delivery boy) from the shanty towns without any formal education. His success on the popular TV game show has made him a celebrity among the street people, but it also has drawn the snide on-air ridicule of the show's host, Prem Kumar (veteran actor Anil Kapoor), and the suspicion of the police, who suspect Jamal is somehow cheating his way to undeserved riches and fame.
That contempt for the poor, and the candid, unashamed way in which anyone can reach out and slap a beggar with complete impunity simply because he or she is too insignificant to matter, shocks us from the very first scenes. It's one of the prime ingredients of this thought-provoking drama. In fact, it overrides the so-called "human interest" plot turns about whether Jamal wins the big prize or gains the affection of his long-lost, equally impoverished girlfriend, Latika (Freida Pinto). The trick question is whether a ragged kid is allowed to be successful. Or even to exist.
The insulting game show host and the authorities are astounded that a dog like Jamal has learned so much about cricket and English literature and Indian classical poetry, but what really bothers them — and by extension the class-conscious bourgeois class of India — is the effrontery of this Muslim good-for-nothing, to command the respect and admiration of millions of viewers for his knowledge of a few facts (the questions are not exactly rocket science). The nerve. Who is this creature, and how did he learn so much while scuffling in the streets? Someone is probably feeding him the answers. It's embarrassing to the nice folks, the ones who ran over his friends' bare feet with their car tires when they were begging in the road.
In scenes that will probably prompt US movie audiences to question the civil rights policies of a country widely hailed as one of the new global superpowers, Jamal is arrested and tortured by the police to reveal who put him up to it. And there his story really begins, in flashback. What a tale it is, and what things Jamal has seen. If it's true that societies are most clearly seen from the bottom up, India has plenty of work to do that has nothing in common with winning call center contracts — and sure enough, Jamal briefly takes a job as a phone wallah, if only for laughs and to move the brisk plot line along. Electric shock and beatings don't work on the stoic Jamal, but fortunately, before he dies in the process, he attracts the curiosity of the police inspector (Irfan Khan), who sits the exhausted young man down and listens in wonder. The inspector finally mutters: "You are too truthful."
The underbelly of Maharashtra is a strange and miraculous place. Little beggar kids, blinded by Fagins in order to earn more pity and thus more money, can tell an American hundred-dollar bill by smell. A boy can lose his mother in a religious riot and no one seems to notice. Entire families set up households in the space between train tracks. A crime boss is fascinated with European football on TV but completely indifferent to a new face in his kitchen, serving him a sandwich. Food magically disappears when left near the windows of a moving train. Twelve-year-old prostitutes in Mumbai's Pila Street don silks and bangles, and boy customers are just as welcome as dirty old men — all it takes is the price. New, unfinished condos being built for India's entrepreneurs make perfect squats.
What a difference a good screenplay makes. Filmmaker Boyle had a dozen years of trouble following up the one-two punch of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. His projects seemed to grow progressively weaker, hitting rock bottom with the outer-space absurdities of last year's Sunshine. But to the rescue came Indian writer Vikas Swarup and his 2005 novel Q&A, adapted for Boyle by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day).
Together with the astounding second unit work of Boyle's directing hired hand Loveleen Tandan (she worked on Brick Lane and Mira Nair's Bollywood-ish Vanity Fair), the cast and crew bring Jamal's world to colorful, aching life, a funky panorama of human endeavor and individual resourcefulness. Some might cry compassion-porn or, ahem, Koyaanisqatsi burnout, but such persons have no souls and are not to be heeded. For the first time since the dead baby crawled across the ceiling in Edinburgh, Boyle has found the perfect match for his showboat visual sense, not to mention his sympathy for social justice where none exists.
Note for fastidious moviegoers: At 48.88 rupees to the dollar, the 20 million rupee grand prize on Mumbai's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? would be worth US$409,165.30 — a considerable sum for a self-made man from the lower classes but not enough to allow Jamal to run for public office or set up a foundation to champion socio-economic reform. But if they invest it wisely, he and Latika could live quite comfortably, at least for a while. Stay out of the US stock markets, though.
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