The titular character of Slumdog Millionaire is Jamal Malik (breakout Dev Patel), an Indian Oliver Twist of sorts. He opens and intermittently propels the story from the 2006 present, when he is being tortured by someone’s goons, back to when he was about five years old. We discover through this framing device that he has won the huge million rupee ($22,502.70 in January 2006; $20,133.80 today) jackpot on India’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire game show, but the network thinks he must have cheated, considering his lowly background. Jamal then recounts in flashbacks how he came to know each other answers. At first any one might seem like just a lucky trivia moment — but the flashbacks weave together into a wonderful, exciting, funny, sweet, terrible story of his growing up in Mumbai.
We follow Jamal and his brother Salim, both slumdogs, inhabiting the immense shanty-city attached to what was once Bombay. All the film (save certain special elements) was shot on location, so it’s a particularly poignant love letter to Mumbai right after the terrible attacks on that city in November 2008. We see the terrible squalor, the close-knit communities, the religious persecution, and the terrible underworld through the eyes of Jamal as he and his brother grow into men. We also see the colorful dye vats, the sublime perfection of the Taj Mahal, the graceful architcecture and bustling crowds. I hope this movie encourages tourism to return to that wounded area.
Grown up Jamal still looks like a boy, with his sweet and hopeful face, stunned by even being on the game show, never mind continuing to win. Despite his boyish face, he and his brother and his childhood love Latika all had to grow up so fast merely to survive so young and parentless. The casting of these three characters at all ages is phenomenal — you really believe these boys are all the same person, only older; Patel’s face registers all the experiences portrayed by his younger counterparts, who also act their pants off.
You may recognize interrogator Irrfan Khan from The Namesake. He gets a small amount of screen time, relatively, but makes the most of it. Not everyone had it so hard as these boys, but he feels the truth of Jamal’s tales as they come. It feels a little like Scheherezade, spinning her tales for another night of life, with our storyteller weaving the truth into a net to save himself. The story and setting are fascinating and you truly fall in love with Jamal. Salim, on the other hand…
Director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Sunshine) shows us again that he can take a story and make something special from it beyond the text. Adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A (adds to wish list), Slumdog Millionaire reinvents the rags-to-riches story and gives us a taste of a world very different than we are familiar with. It’s a solidly great piece of filmmaking, do check it out.
MPAA Rating R-violence, disturbing images, language
Release date 12/5/08
Time in minutes 120
Director Danny Boyle
Studio Fox Searchlight/Warner Brothers