"Slumdog Millionaire", the new film from director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting", "28 Days Later") is the foreign film break out this year. There is always one. One film containing believable characters, an interesting story and great filmmaking that attracts more than the core audience of foreign film aficionados. "Slumdog Millionaire" is the film that will play in multiplexes across the country.
Jamal (Dev Patel, BBC America's "Skins") is a contestant on the Hindi version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" and he is doing quite well, surprising everyone even the show's host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), an oilier version of our own Regis. Jamal reaches a very high plateau just as time runs out. Join us tomorrow as Jamal goes for the big 4 million-rupee question. As Jamal and Prem walk backstage, two cops take Jamal in and begin interrogating him. A little slum dog like him could not possibly have the intelligence or knowledge to make it this far. Doctors and professors don't make it this far. He must be cheating. Who is helping him? How is he doing it? Thus begins "Slumdog Millionaire", director Danny Boyle's newest creation and a film that easily erases any memory of the travesty he last perpetrated on us. (That was called "Sunshine" and I don't recommend it. At all. In fact, sorry to bring it up again.)
As Jamal sits in the police station, the Inspector (Irrfan Khan, "A Mighty Heart", "The Namesake", "The Darjeeling Limited") shows a VHS tape of the show he was just on, starting with his introduction. Everyone politely applauds as Jamal enters and Prem tries to get a few personal facts out of the young man. When Jamal manages to make the audience laugh, at Prem's expense, the tides turn and Prem, always aware of his status as one of India's biggest personalities, is a bit taken back. But as he is being watched by millions of people, he laughs it off. They start with the easy questions and Jamal answers the first.
For each of the questions, we revisit a part of Jamal's life, watching how he grew up in the slums, the lengths he would go to to get an autograph from one of his favorite stars, a particularly harrowing stay in an orphanage right out of a Dickens's novel and much more. We quickly get the rhythm director Boyle wants to show us. Jamal is able to answer all of these questions because he has experienced something in his life providing him with the answer. It is almost as though he is fated to appear on the show at this time, because all of the questions seem to be written for him, catering to his knowledge.
The film presents an episode from Jamal's life to give us the background on how he obtained the knowledge necessary to answer the question. And as we watch these moments, most form the coherent narrative of the young man's life to this point. Early on, he becomes an orphan, living on the mean streets of Bombay with his older brother, Salim, and an orphan girl named Latika, whom they befriend and adopt. As Jamal grows up, he makes decisions that will affect his life based on Salim and Latika. In fact, early on, he develops a love for Latika, believing her to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Throughout his life, she is always on his mind and he desperately wants a reunion. Again, the fates seem to step in.
As the story follows many twists and turns, Jamal, Salim and Latika end up in an orphanage where all the children are expected to sing, literally, for their supper. When they achieve a certain skill, the director of the orphanage uses a truly Dickensian method to eke more money out of the children's earnings as street performers and beggars.
Jamal does not have an easy life and all of these harrowing moments are shown to us, giving us a unique portrait of what his life is like and a snapshot of the time and place.
As a young man, Jamal's infatuation with Latika (Freida Pinto) knows no bounds and he tries to relocate his brother, now a well-known enforcer for a local gangster, in the hopes of locating her again. When he finds out she is the 'kept' girl of the same gangster, he decides to pay her a visit. He soon realizes he must have money, to help them both escape, and decides to appear on her favorite show, "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?" He figures any money he wins will help them and his appearance will also attract her attention, proving his love and devotion. More, it will provide a sort of calling card to her, hopefully prompting her to take the next step and meet him, so they can run off together.
He surprises himself when he realizes he knows most of the questions.
At first, Prem is entertained by the little 'slumdog' sitting in the chair opposite him. His appearance could only help improve the already outstanding ratings of his show, and increase his already great star power. But Jamal gets over his stage fright too quickly and begins to verbally spar with the host of the popular show. Then he begins to answer many questions right.
How is he able to answer questions that doctors and lawyers have failed at? Therein lies the story.
Prem tries to maintain his show's reputation and the suspense by drawing things out as much as possible. When they reach a high plateau, he is happy to realize they have run out of time. The 'slumdog' will have to return tomorrow. His director and producers are thrilled, but Prem is happy to see the police take him away.
Directed by Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan and written by Simon Beaufroy ("The Full Monty"), "Slumdog Millionaire" is very close to a perfect film. Boyle and his co-director weave a stunningly complex tale of three young people who start out the same and follow their lives down different paths. It is the lifelong love Jamal has for Latika that will bring them all back together in a completely rousing, believable and very romantic finale.
Naturally, there are moments as terrifying as others are amusing. Yet, Boyle achieves a fine balance making them all seem believable and taking us on a journey through many emotions. One moment we might laugh at Jamal's predicament, the next cry at his misfortune. The remarkable thing about this is that Boyle manages to make everything seem natural, to flow with ease. Nothing ever seems forced or cinematic.
Quite honestly, there isn't a single thing I can think of to criticize about this film. No false steps, no story holes, none of the acting sticks out for the wrong reasons. What is clear is that Boyle and his team film many scenes in India, on the crowded streets of Mumbai, in the slums, making the film all the more authentic. I know this must seem like a given, but it is difficult to control all of the elements of a film shoot on any actual city street. When you multiply the crowds and decrease the size of the streets, the job becomes all the more difficult. Yet, there are a surprising number of scenes set outside in Mumbai and in very wretched, horrible looking slums.
There have been more than a few films in the last few years to use game shows as part of the story, providing a certain amount of dramatic subtext to the main character's story. Generally, these seem forced and don't really work. In "Slumdog Millionaire", there is a key difference; the game show host is a character in the film, involved in the story and the game show is used as a framing device to show us various key moments in Jamal's life. This technique is so much more inherently engaging it makes all the difference in the world.
Even the overly romantic nature of the climax seems well earned by the viewer and fits with the rest of the story.
Boyle is a very good filmmaker who takes his time and seeks out the right projects. When he finds the right project, because there have been missteps ("Sunshine", "A Life Less Ordinary"), he knocks them out of the ballpark.