Director of films such as Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle is known for his imaginative, in your face style. In Slumdog Millionaire he finds in India a perfect subject for his restless energy as he brings an outsider’s fascinated curiosity to paint a dazzling portrait of a multi-faceted and fast-changing society.
It contains many dark, disturbing themes, including poverty, homelessness, religious rioting, gang violence and police torture, but somehow the celebration of human survival and love ultimately makes this a feelgood film.
The story is based on an episodic novel by Vikas Swarup, but screenwriter Simon (The Full Monty) Beaufoy has cleverly given it an overarching narrative. The film begins with 18-year-old Jamal Malik, an orphan from the slums of Mumbai working as a tea boy in a call centre, just one question away from winning 20 million rupees on Indias Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
With such an unlikely background, he is accused of cheating and brutally interrogated by the police. But Jamal explains how he knew the answers to all the questions because each one touched on a pivotal moment in his past, with the film proceeding in a series of extended flashbacks illustrating his extraordinary life story.
We see how, after the death of their mother in a savage religious uprising, seven-year-old Jamal and his older brother Salim use their wits to survive on the streets of Mumbai, with an orphaned girl called Latika, over whom they later fall out. Although Jamal and Latika love each other, they are forced apart as Salim coerces her into the gangster lifestyle he has become a part of. Jamals quest to win Latika back is the driving heartbeat of the story.
With more than a hint of magical realism, Slumdog Millionaire is essentially an urban fairy tale. Despite the horrors depicted in surviving the teeming Mumbai slums, there is much romance and comedy in the film, as the irrepressible human spirit emerges triumphant from the harshest of environments. Searing scenes such as the blinding of children by a gang bent on making them more profitable beggars are balanced by those like the hilarious hoodwinking of American tourists by the brothers pretending to be tour guides at the Taj Mahal. The film may be accused of a soft-hearted sentimentality underlying its seedy milieu but it possesses an undeniable emotional force.
There are many memorable moments and amazing images, such as the two brothers being chased by the police through the back streets of the city or attempting to steal food from inside a railway carriage as they sit on the roof, while their train speeds through the breathtaking Indian countryside. The use of location is outstanding, with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle making inventive use of hand-held digital cameras, enhanced by Christopher Dickenss zappy editing. And the sound is equally effective, including A.R. Rahmans Indian hip-hop score giving the music a contemporary cutting edge.
As Jamal, Dev Patel (the only British Asian cast member, best known for the cult youth TV series Skins) gives an assured, highly sympathetic performance, expressing both the traumas of his childhood and his determination to rescue the girl he loves. Latika is played by the drop-dead gorgeous Freida Pinto, while Madhur Mittal is the aggressively thrusting Salim who eventually redeems himself.
Legendary Bollywood star Anil Kapoor gives quizmaster Prem an insidiously charismatic presence, as he mocks Jamal in front of the studio audience and tries to sabotage his chances, afraid of being upstaged on his show. And Irrfan Khan impresses as the Inspector who changes his mind about Jamal as he like us is taken through the teenage slumdog millionaires tumultuous past, packed with enough incident to last several lifetimes.
Slumdog Millionaire is an exhilarating rollercoaster of a movie. There are plenty of ups and downs in this speedy two-hour ride through sprawling modern India but its irresistible momentum leaves you breathless and stirred.