Love means never having to say you’re sari: Slumdog Millionaire ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 29, 2008)

Leave it to Danny Boyle, who somehow managed to transmogrify the horrors of heroin addiction into an exuberant romp (Trainspotting), to reach into the black hole of Mumbai slum life and pull out the most exhilarating “feel good” love story of 2008. Slumdog Millionaire nearly defies category; think Oliver Twist meets Quiz Show in Bollywood.

Using a framing device reminiscent of The Usual Suspects, the tale unwinds in first person narrative flashback, as recalled by a young man who is being detained and grilled at a police station. Teenage “slumdog” Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a contestant on India’s version of the popular game show franchise Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has been picked up and accused of cheating, on the eve of his final appearance on the program, which could cap off his prodigious winning streak with a cool 20 million rupees. What makes Jamal suspect to the show’s host (played with smarmy aplomb by Bollywood superstar Anil Kapoor) is his apparent detachment.

Despite the fact that he’s continually hitting the jackpot with the correct answer to every question, Jamal’s pained expressions and mopey countenance suggests a slouching indifference. After all, he’s a dirt-poor orphan from the streets, so shouldn’t he be beside himself with joy and gratitude ? What could possibly be motivating him to win, if not greed? Love, actually. But don’t worry, I’m not going to spill the beans (masoor?) here and spoil anyone’s fun. Suffice it to say, when you see the object of Jamal’s devotion, portrayed by drop-dead gorgeous Freida Pinto (whose “STARmeter” on the Internet Movie Database has gone up nearly 2000% since last week), you’ll be rooting for our hero (and rutting for Freida).

Patel and Pinto have an appealing on-screen chemistry (some viewers may recognize Patel as a regular cast member of BBC-TV’s cult series, Skins). Madhur Mittal is excellent as Jamal’s brother Salim, with whom he has a complex and mercurial relationship. I don’t know where Boyle found them, but the child actors who portray the pre-teen versions of the three core characters and other supporting roles deliver some extraordinary performances; from a pure acting standpoint I think they are actually given the more demanding and difficult scenes to play, and they pull it off in a convincing, genuinely heart-wrenching fashion. An honorable mention goes to Ankur Vikal, who plays the most evil villain of the piece, a Fagin-type character who exploits street children in the worst way possible (no one will accuse Boyle of sugar-coating slum life).

While this is structured like an old fashioned, slam-bang entertainment, it still contains many snippets of Boyle’s typically visceral, in-your-face “smell-o-vision”; the flashbacks of the protagonist’s hard-scrabble childhood in the impoverished slums of Mumbai spins the neo-modern Indian folk tale vibe into Brothers Grimm land for a spell. Speaking of “smell-o-vision”, Boyle actually out-grosses his “worst toilet in Scotland” scene from Trainspotting. I will say no more; only to warn if you have a low gag factor, be prepared

Just like the best Bollywood offerings, the film (co-directed by Loveleen Tandan with a script by Simon Beaufoy, adapted from Vikas Swarup’s novel) is equal parts melodrama, comedy, action, and romance. It’s a perfect masala for people who love pure cinema, infused by colorful costume and set design, informed by fluid, hyper-kinetic camera work (from DP Anthony Dod Mantle) and accompanied by an infectious soundtrack. Be sure to stick around for the end credits; if you feel like dancing in the aisles, knock yourself out.

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