I don’t cheat clients. Virgin they want, virgin they get.
“Tell me something about yourself,” smiles the very slick and smiley game show host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor). His contestant, young Jamal (Dev Patel), looks nervous. In the proverbial hot seat on India’s version of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, he’s about to try for 20 million rupees. After suggesting that he has in waffling about working with cell phones, he confesses he’s a chai wallah: “I get tea for people.” Now it’s Prem’s turn to look concerned, oh so briefly. This boy might make for a great story or an abject failure, and so the host presses on—following a commercial break!
During that break, Slumdog Millionaire takes what seems a turn—out of the television studio, into a dingy, sweltering police station. Here a suspicious inspector (Irrfan Khan) questions Jamal. “Tell me how you cheated,” he demands, assuming that no uneducated street kid could have come so close to taking away so much money without running some scam. Jamal cannot. He hasn’t cheated, he insists. Frustrated, the cops hang him from the ceiling and apply electric shocks until the boy is unconscious. This is getting them nowhere, the inspector laments. “What if he did know the answers? What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?”
In fact—or in the movie’s riotous, luscious fantasy—this slumdog does know the answers. He surprises himself as much as anyone, responding to an astounding series of questions, each speaking directly and surreally to his own specific experiences. This allows Danny Boyle’s film (cast and co-directed by Loveleen Tandan, adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A) to cut deftly back and forth in time, as Jamal recalls life-changing events and an array of vivid figures, including an assortment of pimps and thieves, his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and the brilliant, if exceedingly beleaguered, love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto).
Rendered in bright colors and zappy cuts, Jamal’s story begins when he’s seven or so (played by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar): after he and his brother watch their mother killed during an anti-Muslim riot, they seek shelter wherever they can find it. Traumatized, the boys scramble through the streets of Mumbai, posing as tour guides at the Taj Mahal and chasing after a huge Bollywood star who drops into town for mere minutes. Imagining a better future despite all odds, the brothers meet the orphan Latika, scrappy and vivacious, her brown eyes mesmerizing, her smile rebellious. While each boy sees in her what he needs, Jamal’s affection is instantly delicate and urgent: in Lakita he finds an ideal reflection of his own hope and resilience. All three children are picked up by the Faginish Maman (Ankur Vikal), who offers them Coca Colas, and within days has them working the streets as part of his army of beggars. Maman’s viciousness soon becomes too much to bear—even for the increasingly streetwise Salim—and so the boys find themselves on their own again, as the film introduces another chapter.
When Jamal loses track of Lakita, he determines to find her again, a mission that takes up most of his young life and makes his movie a flamboyant romance, all about striving and underdogging and embracing passion. That this sentimental journey is structured as well by the game show connects this jaunty thriller with Boyle’s dazzling opus on consumers and/as addicts, Trainspotting. Like that film (and like Millions and 28 Days Later too), Slumdog Millionaire takes a measure of its moment by way of generic conventions. While it’s plainly enthralled with Bollywood musicals and gangster pictures, odysseys and love stories, the movie also provide a smart critique of contemporary classism, entrenched sexism, and generational self-interest.
Jamal’s devotion to his girl is sappy, but his gritty resistance is a function of his sensitivity. He’s a street kid with a big heart, yes, an emblem of any number of intersecting failed social systems. But he’s also the perfect product of such systems, ambitious and not a little ingenious as he puts together the pieces of his life, making sense of chaos, a storyteller who finds his perfect audience—which just happens to be a faceless throng out three in television-land, voracious and desperately seeking distraction.
For its own version of that audience—in search of something new and also familiar—the film offers a variety of pleasures. For all the antic frames and cunning shadows, the exhilarating surfaces and formal innovations, Slumdog Millionaire never quite lets viewers off the hook for wanting what it delivers—energetic good fun (see especially: the delightful dance number under the closing credits), with occasional blood and mayhem to induce tension and elevate expectations (a happy ending feels so very deserved). It is, as well, exactly right that the violence speaks to a very real life set of circumstances, less alleviated by dancing and game shows than exacerbated and contested.