It’s the structure and style, not the story itself, that are the really winning elements of Danny Boyle’s exuberant “Slumdog Millionaire,” the tale of an Indian ghetto youth who becomes an unlikely winner on that country’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (and an immediate celebrity) but must confront charges that he’s cheating. In the process of answering police questions about how he knows the answers, his life as a street child and his relationship with his older brother and the girl who early on ran with them are gradually disclosed, because they’re the key to his success.
The script, derived from a novel called “Q&A” by Vikas Swarup, is constructed in the fashion of “The Usual Suspects”—not a bad model, though in this instance the “reveal”
isn’t stored up until the end but parceled out bit by bit as the correct responses given by Jamal (Dev Patel) are explained one-by-one through flashbacks to past episodes in his life as either a child (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) or a teen (Tanay Hemant Chheda). They all involve his brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail as a child, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala as a teen); together they see their mother killed in a religious riot and then try to survive on the streets, eventually being taken in by a Faginesque character who aims to use them for his own unsavory purposes. By then they’ve adopted another street child, Latika (Rubina Ali, then Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar) as a sort of sister, and Jamal becomes devoted to her until they’re tragically separated, only to be reunited years later in a way that drives the brothers apart.
Now, the three are brought together again, but not happily. Salim (Madhur Mittal) is now the right-hand man of a local gangster, and Latika (Freida Pinto) the hoodlum’s kept woman. Jamal, still pining after her, goes on the quiz show to win her away.
If one wants to nitpick, the script has some problems of construction, taking on an air of predictability after awhile, since it becomes apparent before long that in the case of each question, there will be an inevitable flashback to some past occurrence that will show us how Jamal’s life experience has prepared him, in however peculiar a fashion, for this precise query. Though the variety of episodes still allows for surprises to occur, the sense of fatalism is palpable, and foreshadows a denouement that is equally expected.
But so dazzling is the work of Boyle, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (working on digital video, and making splendid use of the Indian locations, including the Taj Mahal) and editor Chris Dickens in juxtaposing past and present, as well as comedy, tragedy and romance (and in the final credits sequence even a Bollywood dance number) that criticism is disarmed. The vibrancy of the film is such that it overcomes the fact that the present-day relationship among Jamal, Latika and Salim really doesn’t have the sort of emotional oomph one might like. (The earlier episodes, especially those set in the characters’ childhood, are far more wrenching.) And one might complain that the scenes between Jamal and the quiz show host on the one hand, and between him and the police interrogator on the other, can get a bit repetitive, even though Anil Kappor brings a fine sense of smarmy arrogance to the former and Irfan Khan quiet authority to the latter.
The various incarnations of the three youths, however, are all well played, with the sequences involving the children in particular achieving a heartbreaking impact.
“Slumdog Millionaire” returns Boyle to the top of his form after the plodding space melodrama “Sunshine.” By turns bracing and charming, moving easily from dark to light, always propulsive and alive, and exhibiting the same skillful touch with young performers that was evident in “Millions”—as well as serving as a love letter to modern India in all its variety and vibrancy–it’s an exhilarating experience that transcends the cuteness and contrivance of its basic premise through the sheer bravura of its filmmaking.