Few movie franchises can match the global success or irresistible watchability of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? which, according to the BBC News, has been broadcast as various versions of itself in more than 100 countries. No matter how little you care about quiz shows, if a few minutes of Millionaire catch your eye, you’ll quickly find yourself completely sucked in, screaming answers or instructions like “phone a friend!” at the television.
A shameless melodrama, Slumdog Millionaire uses the worldwide familiarity with the game show’s rituals to seize the audience’s attention. Slumdog, directed by English filmmaker Danny Boyle, takes place in India, so hapless young contestant Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) plays for rupees, not dollars, but the conventions prove completely the same.
Compared to Regis Philbin, Anil Kapoor’s host shows an overt sadistic streak when he mockingly refers to Jamal as a “chai wallah,” or tea porter, in his job at a telemarketing call center. He predicts that Jamal will collapse under pressure within a question or two, but he proves to be such a success that the host suspects him of cheating. Slumdog crosscuts between Jamal’s stint on the show, his ordeal under brutal police interrogation, and flashbacks to his traumatic life as a penniless street urchin or “slumdog.”
Loosely adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel Q and A, Slumdog hinges on the ingenious narrative device that major incidents of Jamal’s life provide him with the answers. A question about a Bollywood movie star prompts Jamal to remember the time his conniving older brother Salim locked him in a latrine at the precise moment the celebrity actor visited their neighborhood. Jamal gets the movie star’s autograph, but only after diving into the latrine, emerging covered with filth.
Jamal’s childhood contains deliberate echoes of Oliver Twist. Jamal and Salim’s mother dies in anti-Muslim riots so they end up on their own, picking through mountains of garbage or scamming tourists at the Taj Mahal. Jamal insists they help out a fellow orphan, Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), who becomes Jamal’s true love.
The bustling locations and rags-to-riches storyline at first seem like a whiplash change of pace for Boyle, who’s best known for Trainspotting’s junkies and 28 Days Later’s zombies. Boyle frequently proves hooked on flashy style and narrative speed – both of which Slumdog shows in abundance. In an early scene, police chase the brothers through a sprawling slum that’s like a city unto itself, and the high-velocity visuals echo Trainspotting’s signature sequences.
Even though shots teem with energy and life, the film feels more like a tourist’s perspective of India than an Indian’s own story. Plus, Boyle focuses so closely on the extremes of Jamal’s story, including implicit sex slavery and police brutality, that Slumdog Millionaire’s first hour can be tortuous viewing. Boyle toys with his viewers’ emotions as mercilessly as Kapoor’s host teases Jamal and his viewers. Patel delivers an unexpectedly sly and steely performance. Eventually you become so entranced by Jamal’s grand romantic gestures to Latika that you ultimately excuse Slumdog’s willingness to manipulate you. For moviegoers hungry for a fresh film experience that ends on an uplifting note, the excruciating yet exhilarating Slumdog Millionaire throws out a lifeline.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (3) Directed by Danny Boyle. • Starring Dev Patel and Freida Pinto. • R, 120 min. • At the Osio Cinemas.