Charles Dickens' novel "Oliver Twist," with its child protagonist and portrayal of criminals - their sordid lives in London's Victorian slums, and their exploitation of children, was made into a very successful musical motion picture, "Oliver." Slumdog Millionaire" reminds me of a British-Bollywood version of "Oliver." Like "Oliver" it romanticizes the terrible poverty of children who are left alone to live and die by their wits. Just as "Oliver" had more than a few extremely dramatic moments, some difficult to watch, "Slumdog" follows suit. Primarily, however, both films are made to be more entertainment than social commentary.
Eighteen year-old Jamal Malik, (Dev Patel), is a "chai wallah," who serves tea to employees at a Bombay call center. Unbelievably, he manages to get himself on the popular game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," as a contestant. Although literate, Jamal has no formal education. However he mysteriously manages to answer all the difficult questions put to him by the show's egocentric host, Prem Kumar, (Anil Kapoor). It seems like all of India is watching to see if the young man, originally from the slums of Darvi, will answer the final question correctly, an answer which would net him 20 million rupees. The show ends with the promise of an even greater audience and more tension the following evening, when Jamal makes his final, and hopefully winning, appearance.
The film begins with a scene of a Mumbai policeman torturing Jamal. The young man is beaten, waterboarded, shocked with electricity, you name it. Superimposed on the screen is a multiple choice question with four possible answers. "Jamal Malik is one question away from winning the jackpot. How did he do it? (A) He cheated, (B) He's lucky, (C) He's a genius, (D) It is written." This is the same format as the "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" questions. Mr. Kumar reported Jamal to the police on suspicion of cheating. After all, how could a slumdog know the answers to questions which have stumped doctors, lawyers, even Ph.Ds? Finally, after an exhaustive interrogation, the police chief believes that Jamal may be legit, and asks him to tell how he acquired his knowledge.
Thus, Jamal takes the viewer on an adventure...on many, many exhilarating, terrifying adventures. For every question asked on the show, Jamal has experienced a life event which gives him the wisdom needed to respond correctly. There are frequent flashbacks to his childhood, and these flashbacks are what I most enjoyed about the film. These scenes include the vast, colorful, impoverished hell of the Darvi slums, where he and his older brother, Salim, were born and try to survive. Adorable scamps, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, as young Jamal, and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, as older brother Salim, run with a crowd of children who inflict mayhem on their surroundings. Their energy is so contagious, that one focuses more on the baby hooligans' activities, mostly illegal, than on their terrible way of life. In one instance, the camera pans out, and from high above the filthy slums look like a colorful patchwork quilt.
The boys witness their mother's murder by a group of marauding, anti-Muslim hating fanatics. Left on their own, they meet another orphan in similar straights, Latika, a shy and lovely girl. (Rubina Ali plays the child, Freida Pinto the teenager). They call themselves the "Three Musketeers." Together they hitch a ride on a train and are thrown off in Agra India, the home of the Taj Mahal. The boys, after a few days listening to guides, improvise an improbable history of the fabulous monument, and show gullible European tourists around, earning enough money to live on.
The three children are eventually discovered by a Fagin-like character, the brutal gangster Maman, (Ankur Vikal). He and his cronies tell Jamal, Salim and Latika that they run a comfortable orphanage and convince the kids to go with them. In fact, Maman collects street children and trains them to beg for money. He cruelly has some of them blinded and crippled so they can earn more money on the streets. Salim, who is being groomed for bigger things, sees one of the children being deformed and he and Jamal escape before Jamal can be treated in a similar manner. Through an "accident," as Jamal is led to believe, Latika is left behind. Jamal never forgets her. He loved her as a child and will continue to love her as a man. His obsession is to find her. It is his destiny. Salim's destiny is quite different.
To avoid spoilers, I won't continue to summarize the plot. I will say that I loved the extraordinary energy of the film and the wonderfully lavish colors, of the clothing, landscapes and characters. There are so many rags to riches fairytales out there, but this one is special. The last musical number, "Jai Ho" is outstanding - a great song and memorable choreography! The acting, by a relatively unknown cast, is usually excellent and the pace is fast.
Screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy adapted the story from the novel "Q & A," (2005) by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup. Beaufoy has expressed his joy at developing and introducing so many different genres and mini-tales within the overall story. Director Danny Boyle earned himself a 2008 Academy Award for Best Director and "Slumdog Millionaire" won for best picture.
My only complaint is that the adult characters of Jamal and Latika seem flat and detached. I also think the movie could be improved upon by eliminating the romance, which I felt was a bit cliched and confused. Underdog, slumdog, Jamal is a BIG winner & that is so upbeat...but does he need to be a millionaire to finally win the girl?