When Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire appeared as the closing-night film at this year’s Asheville Film Festival, it received not one, but two rounds of applause—one as the ending credits started to roll and a second when the words “A Danny Boyle Film” and “Slumdog Millionaire” appeared at the end of those credits. I can’t attest to this personally, since I was still in the theater, but I was told you could hear the audience out on the street. I tend to believe it, though, because I can’t remember a response like it. And Slumdog Millionaire is a film that fully deserves such an outpouring of audience love. It’s a truly remarkable work—that incredible rarity of a film that is both a crowd-pleaser and absolutely brilliant filmmaking. It’s a joyous, moving, living work that propels Boyle to the forefront of filmmakers working today—and unless an actual miracle occurs on movie screens between now and Dec. 31, it’s the best movie of the year.
Newcomer Dev Patel plays Jamal Malik, a lowly “chai walla” (tea boy) for an outsourced phone-soliciting company in Mumbai, who manages to become a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Jamal has his own, very personal, reasons for getting on the show, which don’t become clear till late in the film, thanks to the nigh-on-to-perfect structure of Simon Beaufoy’s (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) screenplay. At the same time, the show’s rather smarmy host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), doesn’t believe that a “slumdog” like Jamal could possibly know the answers to the questions on the show, yet Jamal keeps answering them correctly. Convinced that Jamal is cheating, Kumar has him arrested and questioned by the police. Jamal’s interrogation at the hands of an authoritative, yet ultimately not unsympathetic police inspector (Irfan Khan, The Darjeeling Limited), reveals not only how he knows the answers, but provides us with Jamal’s life story—and that of his brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal), and the girl he loves, Latika (Frieda Pinto).
What could have been nothing more than a workable framing story is turned into purest magic by the way it’s handled and by the way everything fits together. The sheer precision of the construction of the film is a joy to behold. There’s not a wasted moment. Everything is geared to the story and the characters, but done in such a way that it feels organic rather than contrived—not in the least because Slumdog trades very heavily on the principles of humanity and entertainment. It works to make you love the characters and become invested in their story without seeming to through a series of events that are funny or terrifying or exciting or heartbreaking or uplifting. Boyle and Beaufoy bring everything that’s appealing about the movies into play in a way that in lesser hands might have been brazenly manipulative. But because it’s all done with such emotional honesty it feels completely genuine.
At the same time, Slumdog permits itself the luxury of being completely open about the stylized nature of its approach (Boyle comes very close to making the viewer rethink some of the basics of film), and allows itself to be—for want of a better word—just a little bit corny and obvious in the bargain. It’s not that the film transcends these elements, it’s that these elements help to make the film what it is and allow Slumdog to contain so much in its two-hour running time. In that space, the film manages to present three life stories, suggest several others, play out a perfectly splendid romance, stage the redemption of one character, keep the audience in rapt suspense with a device that will make you smile rather than groan—and top it all off with a Bollywood musical number. It’s all as close to perfect as you’re likely to get.
The film becomes even more remarkable when you consider the size of its canvas and the fact that the time frame requires the three main characters—Jamal, Latika and Salim—each to be played by three different actors over its course. To some degree, it probably helps that none of these actors are familiar faces, so we’re never distracted by recognition value. That, however, neither entirely explains, nor does it lessen, the accomplishment of it all. I’ve seen the film three times now and continue to be amazed with each viewing.
I should note that a handful of the viewers at the film-festival showing had trouble with the nature of some of the film’s earlier scenes—particularly those depicting the offhand torture of Jamal by the police—and left the theater (some to their later regret when they heard about the rest of the film). Yes, these scenes are tough to sit through—and the image of someone hanging from a rope while being given electric shocks is a strong one—but they are necessary to the tone and setting of the film. Moreover, these scenes are not in the least indicative of the overall film. Bear with them. What follows makes this more than worthwhile. This is truly a must-see movie. Rated R for some violence, disturbing images and language.