Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a film so upbeat and colourful that, by the time you’re relaying its infectious air of optimism to friends, you could forget that it features orphans, slaughter, organised crime, poverty, enslavement and police brutality in its crowd-pleasing repertoire of suffering and renewal. Hell, it even ends with a get-up-and-dance Bollywood number on the platform of Mumbai’s main train station.
Shot entirely in India and largely on location, the fabric of the film is winningly realistic. But the story is pure fantasy inspired partly by coproducer Celador’s desire to enshrine its winning creation, the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in a movie. Still, Boyle succeeds in leaving these creepy beginnings behind to create a film that’s full of warmth and humanity and forever looks on the bright side of tragedy.
The script is a simple conceit: writer Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) has ripped up Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A and turned it into a rags-to-riches yarn about Jamal (Patel), a young, slum-born adult in Mumbai who gives such a cracking performance on …Millionaire, that he’s only one question shy of the 20-million-rupee jackpot. Such unlikely success inspires envy on the part of the show’s creepy host (Kapoor), who invites the police to arrest, question and torture him. This interrogation offers flashbacks of episodes in Jamal’s life that reveal the extraordinary sources of his knowledge and lend Boyle the handy framework of a child becoming an adult against all the odds in an India that’s changing by the hour but still dangerous for any kid on the loose.
Of all Boyle’s mixed work, from the promise of Shallow Grave to the embarrassment of Millions and the recent experiment of Sunshine, his new film probably best resembles Trainspotting: where in that film he found energy, humour and bonhomie in the stupor of heroin addiction, here he takes the impoverished life of a young Indian and spins it into an escapist fairy tale steeped in the sights and sounds of the new India. By the time Jamal gets his girl – ultimately and simplistically it’s a romance – and everyone’s tapping their feet, you’ll have forgotten that one of his young friends was blinded and another sold into prostitution. You may also forgive some of the plot’s wilder turns and increasingly erratic jumps in time.
Boyle flirts with realism but never fully buys into it. He’s too concerned with keeping the mood light and the pace furious. He’s a flashy filmmaker at times, but the real saving grace of Slumdog Millionaire is how Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle go to extreme and pleasing lengths to soak up the colours, people and places of India.
The film’s messages – that hard-earned street knowledge can be as valuable as traditional education and, while hardly original, that later success can overcome earlier hardship – are attractive if you’re willing to bite your tongue at the air of positivity. With so much good humour about you can even forgive the film’s bizarre slip from on language to another as young Indian actors give way to a warm, English language performance from Britain’s Patel, just one of a cast of actors who are as likeable and compelling as the film itself.
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