A) He cheated
B) He's lucky
c) He's a genius
D) It is written
Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, BBCA's "Skins") is an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai who is one question away from being the first contestant to win the top prize of 20 million rupees on India's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?", when Emcee Prem Kumar (Bollywood star of 100 films, Anil Kapoor) has him hustled out the back entrance by the police. Kumar, who executive produces the show, cannot believe that this poor uneducated boy could possibly have answered so many questions correctly without cheating, that he could become a "Slumdog Millionaire."
This hugely popular festival favorite (Audience Winner Toronto 2008) is sure to become a great crowd pleaser, dealing as it does with a David vs. Goliath motivated by love, but by its very conceit - that Jamal is able to answer tricky questions because of his experiences over a hardscrabble childhood - its script (Simon Beaufoy, "The Full Monty," "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day") cannot help but be contrived, everything rigged beyond the possibilities of coincidence. Anyone who cannot see the final question that is coming hasn't been to very many movies. Still, the story Jamal relates in flashback to the Police Inspector (Irfan Khan, "A Mighty Heart," "The Namesake") to plead his innocence is a tough, affecting tale.
Danny Boyle ("Millions," "Sunshine"), who codirects with Loveleen Tandan, gives us a harsh dose of just what Jamal's life has been like when his unproven cheating on a game show results in questioning administered with waterboarding, electric shocks and stress positioning(!). When, after all this, Jamal still insists he knew the answers, the inspector is inclined to hear him out and Jamal begins to tell his story. How did he, a Muslim, know what the Hindu god holds in its right hand? Jamal relates the horrific tale of how he (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar at 7) and his older brother, Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail at 9), became orphaned, his mother killed by Hindu mobs intent on eradicating them. How did he know whose face is on a U.S. hundred dollar bill? He (Tanay Hemant Chheda at 13) once gave one to a blind beggar he used to know, who asked him the question to be convinced of the amount, and so on.
The flashback sequences are the real heart of the film. Jamal is a kind little boy, his brother Salim a more opportunistic type, a survivor willing to con and more open to corruption, theirs a complex but codependent relationship. When another child orphaned by the genocide, Latika (Rubina Ali), follows them and stand in the rain outside their flimsy shelter, Salim wants her gone, but Jamal cannot stand to see her suffer and invites her in, the third Musketeer to their Portos and Athos. She will be the love of his life, but circumstance is cruel and twice Salim will see to their separation. At their youngest, the three are herded up by a man who will impact their lives through their teens. Posing as an orphanage founder, Maman (Ankur Vikal) kidnaps kids off the street and trains them to beg, even mutilating them to bring in more money. They eventually escape and jump a train, but Salim purposely lets go of Latika's hand. The two brothers jump off at the Taj Mahal where they are able to make a living posing as tour guides and stealing tourists' shoes. But Jamal continues to pine for Latika and he makes his way back to a very different Mumbai than the one they left. Miraculously reunited with his love, then separated again as Salim (Madhur Mittal at his eldest) becomes a full fledged gangster, Jamal still won't give up and fate leads him towards the game show which he is sure Latika (Freida Pinto) will be watching.
Boyle is adept at managing the film's demand for tonal shifts, going as it does from comedy (Jamal lands in a pile of human waste in order to get an autograph) to adventure (train hopping) to horror (a little boy blinded) to misery (Latika forced into sexual slavery) to suspense (the game show itself) and romance. The filmmakers have also done a terrific job of casting the three central characters in triplicate, the three youngest wonderfully engaging without any cutesy showboating. Dev Patel, suggested by Boyle's daughter, is an earnest Everyman and the actor engages us in Jamal's cause hook, line and sinker. Model Pinto, a real looker, also convinces of her attachment to the rather nerdy Jamal. Mittal, a reality show winner himself, is tasked with showing two faces as the eldest Salim and pulls it off as well as could be expected given the script's marionette strings. Anil Kapoor is excellent as the emcee, at once condescending to and threatened by the 'chaiwalla' but savvy enough to showcase the kid's story.
Production credits include the terrific cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle ("Millions"). The aptly named Chris Dickens, given the Dickensonian tale, smoothly edits among a variety of situations and time frames. Original Music by A.R. Rahman ("Elizabeth: The Golden Age") is a bit overcranked during chase scenes, but does add urgency. Subtitles are applied with some creativity in color coordinated blocks scattered around the screen.
"Slumdog Millionaire's" game show gambit is both the film's hook and its undoing, intellectually intriguing in its structural use yet emotionally distancing in failing to suspend disbelief. Even the film's final scene is affected, ignoring Jamal's newfound celebrity. Still, as the tale of three orphaned street kids taking separate paths to put their pasts behind them, Boyle has delivered a modernized classic.
Robin did not see this film.
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