By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Imagine the young David Copperfield transported in time and place to the dizzying, impoverished, improbably beguiling city of Mumbai and you get the gist of "Slumdog Millionaire."
This 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, combined with timeless melodrama and a hardworking orphan who withstands all manner of setbacks, "Slumdog Millionaire" plays like Charles Dickens for the 21st century. But in this particular saga, the stench and soot of Victorian England have been replaced by the Tata fumes and computer-screen glow that envelop a country in the throes of profound economic and cultural change.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 one Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a lanky, lantern-jawed kid from the slums of Mumbai (formerly called Bombay) whom we meet just after he has won 10 million rupees on the game show. As the movie asks in a set of cleverly designed titles, how could a young man with no formal education know so many answers to such arcane questions? 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 -- undying love.
Like such other Western filmmakers as Wes Anderson and Chris Smith, director Danny Boyle has clearly found inspiration in the landscape and textures of modern-day India, whose historic aesthetic of riotous color and lush extravagance coexists with otherwise blah call centers and vanilla-colored condos.
In fact, without such a dynamic and visually arresting backdrop, "Slumdog Millionaire," which was adapted by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy from a novel by Vikas Swarup, would be just another by-the-numbers melodrama. Even as a besieged underdog, Patel often makes a maddeningly laconic protagonist. Indeed, the two most interesting characters are the film's only ambiguous ones: Jamal's brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal), whose motives are as opaque as they are mercurial, and game show host Prem Kumar, played by Anil Kapoor with the sly poker face of a professional knife-fighter. (The film is worth the price of admission just to hear Kapoor's silky pronunciation of the word "millionaire.")
With its stock characters and often outlandishly contrived plot, "Slumdog Millionaire" could easily be relegated to the category of cinematic stunt, a penny dreadful for the postmodern age. But even at its most superficial and floridly overheated, this chai-fueled tall tale retains its appeal, largely because of Boyle's fluency with the medium he so obviously loves. Viewers familiar with such earlier films as "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later" know of Boyle's love for snazzy cuts and stylized effects. Those predilections serve him well in a story that needs to move with the lightning speed of the society it reflects. Even when "Slumdog Millionaire" is retailing the most appalling depredations of Jamal's life (a disgusting episode at a public toilet, unspeakable violence at the hands of a Fagin-like kidnapper), Boyle manages to capture the pulse and verve of a universe where anything is possible.
That admittedly sounds like a fairy tale, and thinking of it as such is the best way to encounter "Slumdog Millionaire." (If the audience doubts the film's underlying sense of fantasy, it should stick around for the rousing closing-credits sequence.) And like all good fairy tales, this outsize celebration of perseverance and moral triumph contains within it a deeper idea -- in this case, the relative nature of what we think we know, and what's worth knowing at all. No doubt Dickens himself would approve.
Slumdog Millionaire (121 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, disturbing images and profanity.