An impoverished orphan through pluck and determination fights for a fortune and the woman of his dreams. But this fable unfolds in a very real place — the mean streets of modern India — and the obstacles our hero must overcome are not the fantastic creatures of legend but the dark and all-too-real impulses of greed, lust, cruelty.
Boyle has made such diverse films as the heroin addict comedy “Trainspotting,” the zombie hit “28 Days Later” and the sci-fi epic “Sunshine.” Clearly he was seduced by the colors and energy of India, for “Slumdog Millionaire” pours off the screen in a torrent of arresting images.
We meet young Jamal (Dev Patel) handcuffed to a chair in a police interrogation room where a detective (Irfan Khan) tortures him with fists and electric shocks. The cop believes that Jamal, the longest-standing contestant on India’s version of the “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” has been cheating. He cannot believe that this uneducated “slumdog” could have answered all those tough questions without help.
So Jamal tells his story, illustrating how coincidences in his life have providentially come together to provide the answers he needed.
Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay (from Vikas Swarup’s novel) skips among three time frames. In the present we have the police interrogation. Then we have flashbacks to Jamal’s spectacular performance on the TV show.
But by far the largest part of the film is devoted to Jamal’s childhood. In the slums of Mumbai we witness the anti-Muslim riot in which his mother was killed. We follow young Jamal, his older brother Salim and the orphaned girl Latika as they scramble to survive.
Taken in by a “charity,” they realize too late that its Dickensian operators use the children as beggars. The brothers escape but must leave behind Latika, whose memory will haunt Jamal over the ensuing decade.
The boys become scam artists. Salim is particularly ruthless, and when they finally free Latika from her imprisonment he claims her sexual favors as payment. The devastated Jamal can only run off to begin his life anew.
In the present Salim (Madhur Mittal) has become the charismatic lieutenant of a notorious gangster, and Latika (the gorgeous Freida Pinto) is the mob boss’s kept woman. Jamal’s love for her is undimmed … in fact the whole point of getting on the TV show is not to win money but to get Latika’s attention and to prove himself worthy.
Entertaining though it may be, “Slumdog Millionaire” never delivers the expected emotional payoff. In part that’s because the three main characters are portrayed at different ages by three sets of actors, a necessary choice that dissipates audience involvement.
And as the 20-year-old Jamal, Dev Patel is almost too passive, facing adversity with stoicism and rarely letting loose with real emotion.
Still, it’s a diverting yarn, one pulsing with unexpected sights and sounds. Sometimes you’d swear you can smell this movie.