What I feel for this movie isn't just admiration, it's mad love. And I couldn't be more surprised. The plot reeks of uplift: An illiterate slum kid from Mumbai goes on the local TV version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and comes off like a brainiac. Who wants to see that? Final answer: You do. Slumdog Millionaire has the goods to bust out as a scrappy contender in the Oscar race. It's modern India standing in for a world in full economic spin. It's an explosion of color and light with the darkness ever ready to invade. It's a family film of shocking brutality, a romance haunted by sexual abuse, a fantasy of wealth fueled by crushing poverty.
You won't find many fairy tales that open with a graphic torture scene. The cops think 18-year-old Jamal Malik (a sensational Dev Patel) is a fraud. Goaded by the show's host (the superb Anil Kapoor), the police inspector (Irrfan Khan) is determined to beat the truth out of Jamal before he goes back on the show and hits the jackpot of 20 million rupees. Presumably this is not the way Regis Philbin ran things when the show hit America in 1999.
Brimming with humor and heartbreak, Slumdog Millionaire meets at the border of art and commerce and lets one flow into the other as if that were the natural order of things. Sweet. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) brings focus to Q & A, the episodic Vikas Swarup novel on which the film is based. Still, the MVP here is Danny Boyle, who directs the film brilliantly. Boyle is the Irish-Catholic working-class Brit who put his surreal mark on zombies (28 Days Later) and smack addicts (Trainspotting), and made us see ourselves in their blood wars. Those movies were so potent, as was his 1994 debut, Shallow Grave, that we looked the other way when Boyle went Hollywood with The Beach and screwed up with A Life Less Ordinary. Somehow we knew that Boyle had the stuff to work miracles.
Here's the proof. We learn the history of Jamal and the other principal characters in flashbacks, as Jamal answers questions on the TV show not from book knowledge — he has none — but his own life experiences. Jamal is searching for two people from his childhood: his wild older brother Salim (an outstanding Madhur Mittal), now a thief and killer, and his adored Latika (the achingly lovely Freida Pinto), now stepping up from child prostitute to plaything of a gangster. Every incident, including the brothers' watching their mother die in an anti-Muslim riot, feeds into Jamal's answers on the show. OK, the concept bends coincidence to the breaking point. But Jamal's traumatic youth is his lifeline. Boyle makes magic realism part of the film's fabric, the essential part that lets in hope without compromising integrity.
Anthony Dod Mantle uses compact digital cameras to move with speed and stealth through the slums and palaces of Mumbai. The film is a visual wonder, propelled by A.R. Rahman's hip-hopping score and Chris Dickens' kinetic editing. The whoosh of action and romance pulls you in, but it's the bruised characters who hold you there. Every step Jamal takes toward his final answer could get him killed. Even in the Bollywood musical number that ends the film, joy and pain are still joined in the dance. The no-bull honesty of Slumdog Millionaire hits you hard. It's the real deal. No cheating.