Every souse scribbling with golf pencils Tuesdays at the Flying Saucer's trivia night has the same dream: that somehow, the particular questions that night might align with the useless knowledge they've accumulated despite years of eschewing study for carousing and skirt-chasing and PlayStationing. Correct answers partially redeem a life squandered.
“Slumdog Millionaire” sees that, and raises. In it, Jamal Malik, a call center lackey reared in the human landfill that is Mumbai's vast slums, finds himself under suspicion of cheating in India's version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” because he nailed enough answers to run up to 10 million rupees without benefit of an education, breeding or any but the most slack facial expressions. In order to return for a shot at the grand prize of 20 million rupees (roughly $420,000, or 400-odd times India's per capita income) he must explain to the fuzz, question by question, how he knew the answers. The only way to do so convincingly is to unspool for them the story of his unlikely, hardscrabble life.
It's a framing device that Scheherazade would applaud, and it proves surprisingly sturdy, carrying Jamal from his days as a shrimpy sidekick to his older brother Salim, in the tin-roofed shacks of the slum, to their turns as urchin beggars and vagabond grifters, to small-time thugs. Early on we also meet ingenue/third wheel Latika, another slum kid whom Salim repeatedly pries away from Jamal.
Turns out Jamal (played, like Salim and Latika, by a trio of actors at different ages, including Dev Patel in adult form) has just enough cultural literacy to advance. Not that he much cares for money. His heart is with Latika, whose own crappy life, like the crappy lives of millions of Indians, and for that matter Americans, seems to get a little less crappy when a game show comes across the tube. When Jamal tries to spring her from her lot as a gangster's plaything, she asks him, “And live on what?” When he blubbers “love,” it's the worst answer he could have picked. She tosses him out before they both get shot and wadded into the trunk of a Mercedes. Who wants to be a millionaire? Duh.
The final act of “Slumdog” has the feel of a moderately ambitious music video (before transitioning, in true Bollywood style, into an actual music video). But even that only barely taints the moments of true brio that precede it. The coming-of-age tale feels like “City of God” on Ecstasy. The exuberant soundtrack, scored by A. R. Rahman and highlighted by M.I.A. at her most raucous, undergirds the sensations of the slum — colors, filth, violence, pandemonium. Director Danny Boyle hasn't rendered hell with such romantic aplomb since his “Trainspotting” in 1996. (Come to think of it, a scene of young Jamal plunging into a lagoon under a latrine outdoes even Mark Renton's dive into the worst toilet in Scotland for sheer sewage shock.)
It's hard to believe that, given the audience-friendly story trajectory, the colors, the music, the enthralling performances by the young children, that Warner Bros. was originally skeptical about recouping the $5 million it paid for the movie's rights. No worries there. Part romance, part action flick, part travelogue, “Slumdog” is going to be the first Indian movie that everyone you know sees, and with good reason.