Money seems to be emerging as a major protagonist in movies these days, what with the current financial crisis. And while Zack and Miri struggle to make ends meet at the plexes by making a porno, now the Brits weigh in with the Indian megabucks quiz show fantasy, Slumdog Millionaire. Though here the challenge is less about money shots than the filmmakers conceiving of a highly unlikely high IQ hero who has to be a whole lot smarter than they are.
Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later), and with a screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) adapted from the novel ‘Q & A’ by Indian writer Vikas Swarup, Slumdog Millionaire is a hyperactive rags to riches yarn playing out on the mean streets of Mumbai. A brutal tale of child exploitation and abuse that would have made Charles Dickens keel over, Slumdog Millionaire keeps tabs on the dismal existence of Jamal (Dev Patel), a Muslim street urchin left homeless with throngs of kids orphaned following the mass carnage of religious civil war.
Driven by a fierce will to survive, though not without the peculiar intermittent intervention of a series of bizarre lucky coincidences, Jamal narrowly eludes being blinded by a con man cultivating a gang of sightless kid street beggars. And he even manages to have no problem clearing an entire street to push through the crowd and obtain an autograph from his favorite movie star, after escaping covered in excrement from the bottom of a locked outhouse.
But fate temporarily takes a less fortunate turn when Jamal – now an enterprising teen toiling at odd jobs following a stint conning foreigners as a fake tour guide at the Taj Mahal – by chance lands on a ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ style game show. With a seemingly superhuman ability to answer every question correctly despite his lower caste roots and lack of formal education, Jamal raises the suspicions of the irritated host (Anil Kapoor) and is sent off to jail.
Though tortured in order to force a confession that he’s cheating his way through the quiz show, Jamal, who has been through far worse in his young life, resists. His explanations for being so brainy eventually satisfy his captors, though the fanciful details will likely be a lot less convincing for even the most gullible movie audiences.
In any case, all ends on an upbeat note for the most downtrodden characters as well, though conditions that persist in India today might suggest a very different state of affairs. Not to worry, there’s a rousing all-star Bollywood boogie finale and even a little far fetched romance tossed in, to send any problematic plot points on their way.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
2 1/2 stars