Sometimes it seems that Hollywood doesn’t know how to make crowd-pleasing romantic movies any more. You know, films that put the underdog through sheer hell before letting him finally prevail, reassuring you only in those last few minutes that, indeed, all’s right in the world. Love triumphs. Villains fall. No elaborate stunts or special effects necessary. Within 10 minutes of its opening you’ve a pretty good idea where Danny Boyle’s gritty, multilingual fairy tale Slumdog Millionaire is headed. It’s to the director’s considerable credit that for the next two hours you’re completely sucked into his intoxicating brew of exotic locales, harrowing thrills, affecting romance, and social consciousness. He even throws in a well-earned Bollywood dance number during the film’s final credits.
Dickensian in spirit but structured like The Usual Suspects, Slumdog chronicles the incredible twists of fate that lead uneducated street rat Jamal (Dev Patel) from the garbage-strewn alleys of Mumbai to the set of India’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, one question away from the ultimate prize. Accused of cheating, barely educated Jamal is brutally interrogated by police the night before he’s to tackle the final question. As he explains to the inspector (Irfan Khan) how he knew the answers to each of the game show’s queries, the film launches into elaborate flashback sequences, each illustrating the alternately horrific and joyous circumstances that led to the answers.
From the childhood murder of his mother during an anti-Muslim riot to the ruthless survival tactics of his gangster brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) to the love of Jamal’s life, Latika (Freida Pinto), Simon Beaufoy’s breakneck script pinballs the audience from crass humor to deadly thrills to buoyant sentimentality with shameless abandon. Boyle meets the challenge by tapping into his Trainspotting swagger, injecting the Bollywood-inspired melodrama with high style. As he tamps down the hyperventilating acting of his native cast, he amps up the visual narrative, creating a genre-hopping tale that’s boisterously hyperkinetic yet intimately sweet. It’s a smart choice since the repetitive nature of the script’s central conceit thins in the final act; the film would benefit from a 15-minute trim (and a better-penned fate for Salim).
Still, as unapologetically entertaining as Boyle’s winking tale about fate is, it brings with it recognition of India’s worst social ills. Slumdog authentically captures the country’s oppressive poverty, class friction, claustrophobic cities, and the schizophrenic impact of its modernizing economy. It’s this cinematic candor that tempers the film’s more maudlin moments and convincingly pulls the improbable contrivances together. And like all good fables, there’s an eloquent moral subtext: While we may think we know much of the world, not everything is worth knowing. Against all odds, Jamal’s dogged perseverance reminds us that the knowledge we gain through experience is what rewards us in the end, and even if we’d rather not have endured them at the time, those experiences can lead us exactly where we hoped to go.•