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If Charles Dickens set "Oliver Twist" in 21st-century Mumbai, reimagining the sweeping story of love and friendship, poverty and tragedy through a Bollywood lens, the result would be a lot like "Slumdog Millionaire." Don't let the exotic setting put you off; this is a massively cool cross-cultural crowd-pleaser.
The film has a flavor as distinctive as cardamom tea. It's a stingingly funny romantic drama, the latest surprise from prodigious English director Danny Boyle, who seems capable of filling any odd vessel with his overflowing talent. Boyle has made impressive suspense, children's, comedy and horror films. This project calls on his established strengths and reveals new ones.
The sprawling story shows us the layer cake of Indian society through the experiences of a street urchin who becomes a national icon. The India of "Slumdog" has one foot in high tech and pop culture, and the other in a world of medieval squalor where child abuse is a national sport. Boyle manages to convey the dreadful poverty surrounding his urchin hero, Jamal, without getting all maudlin. Yes, Jamal's growing up in awful circumstances, the film tells us, but look at what a resourceful little chap he is; never fear, he'll emerge with his integrity and spirit undimmed.
The film bristles with life and sheer audiovisual excitement of a kind I haven't seen since 2001's great Brazilian slum drama "City of God." The heat-saturated cinematography captures the bustle and grit of Mumbai's pulsating slums, and the whip-crack editing urges the action ahead, injecting religious uprisings and fist fights atop Mumbai skyscrapers with white-knuckle tension. Boyle has created a kaleidoscopic vision of Third World life that is tough-minded but unquenchably optimistic. The film depicts drugs and riots, blinded beggars, brutal gang lords, gun-crazy pimps and pathetic whores, homicidal mobs and even a gross-out scene in which a boy dives into a pit of human waste. And yet it's one of the most uplifting, jubilant films of the year.
The frame of the story is 20-year-old Jamal (Dev Patel) appearing on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" He's an amiable, unprepossessing fellow, and the arrogant host (Anil Kapoor), sees him as a nobody to be taunted for the audience's enjoyment. Jamal is unusually relaxed, however, and knows every answer.
Who invented the revolver? Which U.S. president's face is on the $100 bill? How can an uneducated castoff know these things? The egocentric game-show host has the police drag in Jamal, and he tells his story, a saga of loyalty, hardship and undying love. The film's inventive narrative structure uses each question as a jumping-off point to show Jamal's life when he learned that particular answer. We learn that Jamal knows not just about trivia, but about life itself.
We cut to his early childhood, the Hindu uprising that orphaned Jamal and his older brother, Salim, and his first meeting with Latika, who steals Jamal's heart at first sight. The three travel through several turbulent years, imagining themselves as the Three Musketeers. Salim, the most pragmatic and business-savvy of the three, follows a criminal path. Beautiful, destitute Latika becomes a rich man's bauble. Humble, kind Jamal schemes his way onto the game show and plays calmly because he's not in it for the money. He hopes that Latika will see him and run to his side.
Boyle cast three sets of actors to play his Three Musketeers as children, adolescents and 20-year-olds, and in those nine performances there isn't a single false moment. There's a deep humanity to all the characters, whether they are idealistic or corrupt. The reliably excellent Irfan Khan (the father in "The Namesake") makes Jamal's police inquisitor a sharply intelligent torturer. As the TV quizmaster, Kapoor is a multifaceted egomaniac, first viewing Jamal as a joke, then grudgingly admiring his achievement, and ultimately seeing him as a threat to be stopped by fair means or foul.
Through it all, Patel is magnetically likable, an underdog whose good-spirited dignity attracts legions of fans. Uproariously entertaining, feverishly energetic, teeming with players to swoon for, cheer on and despise, "Slumdog" will make you feel like a million rupees.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186