The annals of film history are filled with movies about tragic, hardscrabble childhoods. But few have been as hellish - and as wondrous - as the one survived by Jamal, the hero of Slumdog Millionaire. Born in impoverished Mumbai and orphaned at the age of 7, the now-18-year-old Jamal (Dev Patel) is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on India's version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?
Yet despite his national celebrity, the kid can't catch a break. As the movie opens, Jamal is being interrogated, in a shockingly inhumane manner, by a police detective (Irrfhan Khan) who suspects the boy has been cheating and wants him to confess before he gets a shot at the final jackpot. Just how could an uneducated, dirt-poor teen know, for example, where Canterbury Circus is or whose face is on an American hundred-dollar bill?
Over a series of flashbacks, we learn the answers. Slumdog Millionaire was directed by Danny Boyle, whose previous films (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Sunshine) never lacked for visual razzle-dazzle and pop energy. But until now, Boyle had never had a story strong enough to match his camera pyrotechnics.
Slumdog Millionaire, which was adapted from Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), is, among other things, a terrific yarn, one so engrossing and surprising that the nature of the story's structure - each question Jamal gets asked on the show corresponds with a traumatic or momentous moment from his childhood - never feels like a contrived framing device.
Instead, the story, with its exploration of the plight of the underprivileged and the unseen connections between India's social classes, feels like a great novel Dickens never wrote about that country. And Boyle's direction takes care of the rest. From an early footchase in which the careening camera gives us a tour of the maze-like slums, to the ridiculously uplifting Bollywood dance number that plays over the end credits, Slumdog Millionaire makes for kinetic, exhilarating entertainment.
Like most classic fairy tales, this is a story about children surrounded by grave peril, often in the form of a Fagin figure. The evil some adults commit in Slumdog Millionaire is at times unspeakable -- and makes the R-rated film too much for young kids. Jamal (played as a child by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and his brother Salim (played by Maddhur Mital and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) must survive some horrific experiences, each of which helps to shape them into the dramatically different young men they become.
The film is essentially a series of short anecdotes linked together by the game show, which is identical to the U.S. version, except that its smug, patronizing host (Anil Kapoor) is more Simon Cowell than Regis Philbin. But unlike most movies, where the story is broken into chapters, the narrative momentum in Slumdog Millionaire never flags, because the characters evolve based on what's come before (the young Jamal's cleverness at obtaining a movie star's autograph, for example, makes it seem natural when he later starts passing himself off as a tour guide at the Taj Mahal).
You could nitpick that this whirling pinwheel of a movie is too slick, too self-consciously designed, for the gravity of its subject matter. But the ultimate test of a movie's effectiveness is whether or not it manages to move you in the intended way. There are shots in Slumdog Millionaire -- the smile of a young woman standing at a train station, a mother crying out for her children -- that impart tremendous emotion without a single word being spoken. And if the final question Jamal is asked on the game show doesn't put a huge smile on your face, or if his decision to use his last remaining lifeline doesn't set your heart racing, then get thee to a hospital.