Slumdog MillionaireDirected by Danny BoyleStarring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Irfan Khan and Anil KapoorRated R*8.5*
Goes well with: Tsotsi,Millions, City of God
Americans have a hard time with globalization. For us, it's a buzzword that represents outsourcing domestic jobs to other nations, primarily India, since that's the accent we hear on the other end of the phone when we need help fixing our computers. But British director Danny Boyle, best known for Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, has never been afraid of multiculturalism. In his last film, Sunshine, representatives of different nations worked together to save the world, and in The Beach, young people from all over came together to create a remote island society.
Boyle's new film, Slumdog Millionaire, is set in India and has an Indian cast (the lead, Dev Patel, is British), and though much of it's in English, it also has its fair share of subtitles. But Americans shouldn't be afraid of this Slumdog, because along with its depictions of horrendous poverty, underage prostitution, child abuse and savage dehumanization of the developing world, it's also a terrific, feel-good film, an audience pleaser that offers a smidgen of hope in a world that's rapidly spiraling down the bowl.
Patel plays Jamal Malik, a young, uneducated boy from the streets of Mumbai who makes his living serving tea to call-center workers. He comes from nothing. He has nothing. He knows nothing. He's a slumdog, so it's a surprise to everyone when he does incredibly well on the Indian edition of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Such a surprise, in fact, that the show's host is convinced he's cheating and has him kidnapped and tortured by the cops to find out how he's doing it. Don't worry—that's not a spoiler. It's the first three minutes of the movie.
Jamal isn't cheating. Under interrogation from a police inspector (Irfan Khan), he recounts his life story, growing up a destitute orphan on the streets of Mumbai with his brother Salim and Latika (Freida Pinto), an orphaned girl his own age who becomes their third musketeer. His whole life has been tragic, but, coincidentally, it's helped him learn the answers to the questions posed to him—he knows who's on the face of the American $100 bill because of a brutal encounter with American tourists, and he knows the lyrics to a specific song because child slavers taught it to him.
The game show questions are the story of his life, and no one is as surprised as Jamal himself that he knows the answers. It's not all about the game show, though—Slumdog Millionaire is about the crossroads of Jamal's past experiences and his experiences on the show. We discover why he's lost contact with his gangster brother and how he's continued to search for Latika, who's been estranged from him for many years.
Slumdog Millionaire walks that tightrope between destiny and free will, the likelihood of chance versus looming fate. But those philosophical ideas are part of the background, set next to the film's gorgeous cinematography and the epic nature of a city like Mumbai, captured in all of its beauty and despair. Is it coincidence that the questions Jamal is asked are the ones he'd know the answers to? Or is it destiny that Jamal's entire life would lead to knowing all those answers? And if destiny is involved, is there any chance for him to find his lifelong, long lost love? It's impossible not to hope for that.
Boyle's direction complements a well-plotted, thoughtful screenplay. Knowing the details of Jamal's life gives the film's beginning a different significance by its end. India's poor and downtrodden, who hold him up as a symbol of success, don't know that his reasons for being on the show are different from what they have in mind. When the final question is answered, it could be said that it makes no difference whether Jamal gets it right or wrong, because you might say he's already won.