Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle’s captivating new film, is structured as a riddle: How is it that 18-year-old Jamal (Dev Patel), a penniless orphan--i.e., “slumdog”--from the streets of Mumbai, could answer trivia question after trivia question correctly on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” en route to a shot at the 20 million rupee jackpot? Is he a genius? Is he cheating?
The riddle is answered with a series of flashbacks to Jamal’s boyhood, in which reside the seeds of his hard-won knowledge. He knows, for instance, who the star of the 1973 film Zanjeer was--Amitabh Bachchan, for those of you scoring at home--because Bachchan was his favorite star when he was little. How much did he love Bachchan? When the actor made a publicity stop in Mumbai, and Jamal’s brother Salim (played when grown by Madhur Mittal) locked him in a stilted outhouse, he exited the only way he could: straight down, a fecal pilgrimage that makes Ewan McGregor’s plunge into the Worst Toilet in Scotland in Boyle’s Trainspotting look like a dip in the Caribbean. When the boy emerges exultant from the muck, he makes a beeline for the scrum surrounding his idol Bachchan, bouncing off (and soiling) his fellow fans like a subcontinental variation on Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo. Rewarded with an autographed photo, he holds it aloft with all the pride of an Olympic athlete brandishing a medal. This is not the last time we see the lengths to which Jamal will go for love.
Subsequent flashbacks veer more toward tragedy than farce: the Hindu riots from which Jamal and Salim barely escape with their lives; the boys’ recruitment and near-mutilation by the leader of an army of child-beggars; Salim’s nascent career as a Mumbai gangster. Yet even at its most harrowing and heartbreaking, Slumdog Millionaire is never less than deliriously entertaining. Working from a script by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), Boyle stages every scene with verve and brio, confidently flashing forward and back from Jamal’s boyhood to his quiz-show appearance to his mid-game interrogation by a police inspector (Irrfan Khan) who suspects him of cheating. Throughout it all, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera bounces giddily through the tin-roofed shanties of Mumbai, while Indian superstar A.R. Rahman’s soundtrack throbs seductively. Not since Fernando Mireille’s City of God has a film about poverty and violence been told with such extraordinary panache.
But unlike City of God, Slumdog Millionaire is not, at heart, a despairing sociological portrait. Rather it is a romantic fable, a story about the power of love undying and undeniable. As a boy, Jamal rescued another young urchin named Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), and from the start he knew her to be his “destiny.” Through trials and triumphs, he returns to find her, only to have her taken from him again--by the beggar kingpin, by a murderous mobster, once even by his own brother Salim, who is ever teetering ambivalently between heroism and villainy. Jamal’s love is the engine of the film, the explanation of his boyhood persistence and his “Millionaire” run. This may not be the first film to conclude with the line “kiss me,” but few have worked so hard to earn it. And though the movie’s exuberant pace slows a bit toward the end, it kicks back into gear with the liveliest credit sequence in recent memory.
Throughout his still-young film career, director Boyle has shown a knack for locating joy in the unlikeliest of subjects, whether heroin addiction (Trainspotting) or zombie epidemic (28 Days Later). With Slumdog Millionaire, this gift blossoms fully, and the result is one of the very best films of the year. While most directors vie to prove that they are Serious Artists by emphasizing the pathos in their stories, Boyle has chosen the opposite path, and thank goodness. Who else, after all, would persuasively present a little boy covered in shit as a triumph of love and the human spirit?
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.