An illiterate teen in Mumbai becomes a contestant on India's version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" to win his friend's heart.
Dev Patel, Frieda Pinto, Anil Kapoor
Dec 5, 2008
"Slumdog Millionaire," a modern-day "rags-to-rajah" fable, won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, and it's easy to see why. With its timely setting of a swiftly globalizing India and, more specifically, the country's own version of the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" TV show, "Slumdog Millionaire" plays like Charles Dickens for the 21st century. But in this particular saga, the coal dust of Victorian England has been replaced by the Tata fumes and computer-screen glow that envelop a country in the throes of profound economic and cultural change.
The resourceful, unerringly grounded title character is Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a lanky kid from the Mumbai slums whom we meet just after he wins 10 million rupees on the aforementioned game show. Accused of cheating, Jamal is taken into custody by the Mumbai police, and he proceeds to tell them his story, a tale of one boy's decidedly unsentimental education by way of poverty, tribal strife, abandonment, exploitation, criminal gangs and -- this is a crowd-pleaser, after all -- star-crossed love.
Director Danny Boyle has clearly found inspiration in the geography and textures of modern-day India. In fact, without such a dynamic and visually arresting backdrop, "Slumdog Millionaire," which was adapted from a novel by Vikas Swarup, would be just another by-the-numbers melodrama.
With its stock characters and often outlandishly contrived plot, "Slumdog Millionaire" could easily be relegated to the category of cinematic stunt. But even at its most superficial, this chai-fueled fable retains its appeal, largely because of Boyle's fluency with the medium he so obviously loves.
Like all good fairy tales, this outsize celebration of perseverance and moral triumph contains within it a deeper idea -- in this case, what we think we know and what's worth knowing at all. No doubt Dickens would approve.
-- Ann Hornaday (Nov. 12, 2008)
Contains violence, disturbing images and profanity.