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Slumdog Millionaire

Danny Boyle couldn’t have timed his resurrection as a populist director much better than this. Half the planet is desperate to enjoy a feel-good hit that doesn’t involve Abba songs.

The other half will be astonished by his chutzpah. Slumdog Millionaire is exactly the kind of exotic, edgy thriller that the new generation of Academy voters on both sides of the Pond absolutely adores. The rags-to-riches story is set in the grubby backstreets of Mumbai. Half the script is delivered in Hindi. And the plot is impossibly shallow.

The film starts at the end. Dev Patel’s 18-year-old Jamal is just one correct answer away from winning — or blowing — a 20 million rupee (£280,000) fortune on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The handsome and terrified youth is an orphan from the gutters of Mumbai. Jamal’s unexpected success on the show over two intense days turns the stuttering youth into a national sensation.

When the programme breaks for the night before the all-important final question, Jamal is bundled through the back door of the television studio, whisked to the nearest police station, and beaten to a pulp by corrupt and jealous cops who want to know how he cheated. This is where the film actually begins.

“What the hell can a slum boy possibly know?” barks the irritated police chief (Irrfan Khan) as a plump minion clips a pair of electric cables to Jamal’s big toes. “The answers,” spits out Patel’s bruised hero. The plucky martyr reveals how each loaded question asked by the slimy host of Millionaire unlocks a seminal childhood injury.

This being a Danny Boyle movie the precious answers are nailed to brutal scenes. They involve frantic sprints through Mumbai’s crowded markets and grisly flashbacks to medieval slums where the nine-year-old Jamal, and his slightly older psychotic brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal), spend most of their childhood fleeing the clutches of sinister pimps and hungry gangs. It’s terribly Dickensian.

The fairytale power of the film is the way Boyle manages to capture the evolution of the city through the eyes of a child. It’s visually astonishing. The film gets under the skin of the city on every imaginable level. The cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is an insouciant genius with a camera. You could hang his lush stills of garbage heaps, frowning waifs and skeletal tower blocks in any respectable art gallery. By the same token the film must have been murder to edit.

Jamal’s shocks of growing up alone unfold like dreams: the death of his mother, murdered during a riot; a comic shaking of hands with a Bollywood legend, and then a long litany of ghastly wounds inflicted on fellow urchins by smiling pimps and lethal Fagins.

The rift between the sensitive Jamal and his increasingly domineering brother is the rip that hurts the most. The adolescent orphans barely understand the pain that they inflict on each other. Boyle uses this simmering tension to turn up the temperature at critical moments.

The director has never been shy of manipulating emotions and characters to crank out the maximum screen emotion. The scented backdrops and flavours of Mumbai dilute the crude liberties that Boyle occasionally inflicts on the melodrama.

The fact that these memories stack up into neat answers is spookily inconvenient if you’re a poisonous bastard such as Anil Kapoor’s deliciously smug television host. Or an emotionally detached viewer. Indeed Slumdog Millionaire is guilty of all sorts of implausible twists, not least a thundery long-distance romance between Jamal and a sultry captive beauty (Freida Pinto) forced into prostitution. It keeps pulling at your sleeve like a needy child.

Despite the wobbly structure, Slumdog is a far more sophisticated film than the plot suggests. There isn’t an inch of Merchant Ivory on view. And, like the best parables, Slumdog doesn’t simply plunder India’s troubled past and a boy’s bitter-sweet memories in order to look forward.

What’s great about the film is that it looks sideways as the past and future grind past each other like tectonic plates. It’s the kind of dynamic that Robert Lepage explores so brilliantly on stage. Here, Boyle takes on a bewildering mess of contradictions to make a surprisingly pure point.

Mumbai’s brand new skyscrapers sprout out of patches of mud; Jamal’s old-fashioned principles will forever be out of synch with the slick, nightclub world that his older brother Salim inhabits. And so it goes. The romance? Fear not. It’s fabulous icing.

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Danny Boyle's

Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is the film equivalent of Usain Bolt's performance at the Olympics: funny, shocking, spectacularly turbo-charged. It takes your breath away at the same time as it makes you want to holler with joy or to grab the person next to you: "Yes!"

Loosely adapted from Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A, the film is set in modern-day Mumbai. Like that city, it brims and overflows, chortles with multiplicity.

It creates a scary and beguiling electricity by allowing opposites to collide – horror and joy, colourful fantasy and grimy reality, history and hyper-modernity. It is itself many different kinds of film: thriller, romance, picaresque, a Western stab at Bollywood.

It begins with Jamal Malik (Dev Patel, from Channel 4's Skins), an 18-year-old call-centre chai-wallah, or tea-vendor, fluking his way onto the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? Here, though uneducated, and patronised by the show's host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), he gets through round after round of questions to stand on the brink of winning the top prize.

No one can believe Jamal's success, though; he represents an India obscured by recent cheerleading about that country's growing affluence and middle-class swagger. He's seen as dirty, virtually untouchable.

Kumar, in a fit of pique, has local police officers headed by Irrfan Khan torture the young man. How, they want to know, pounding and electrocuting him as they interrogate him, can an upstart like him possibly know the answers to the TV show's questions?

And so, in a piece of plotting both nimble and schematic, one that involves lots of dramatic flashbacks, Malik reveals to the officers the train of events by which he amassed all sorts of facts.

He can answer a question about film actor Amitabh Bachchan because when he was younger he had dived into a public latrine in order to get the Bollywood legend's autograph. He can answer a question about a gun inventor because he'd heard the name "Colt" mentioned as he was helping his brother Salim to rescue fellow orphan Latika from the clutches of brutal pimps.

A fragmented biography emerges: he's a shanty-town urchin, born to a mother who's later slaughtered in an anti-Muslim pogrom, and forced to hustle a living that takes him on adventures both abysmal and exciting through a society that is becoming flashier and more urban as time goes by.

The narrative structure of Slumdog Millionaire is perfect for a restless director like Boyle, allowing him to fast-forward between dramatic episodes at will, and freeing him from the need to dwell too intimately on the finer shades of characters' personalities.

He's always been a moviemaker keener to play with form and tweak with tempo than to explore the complexities of human psychology. Yet the film, which for all its breathless intensity rarely subverts our expectations, and which in its final section sticks closely to the conventions of modern action drama, never fails to grip or to delight.

It's easy to sense the excitement that Boyle – and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle – felt when shooting in Mumbai. They're alive to the jagged rhythms of the city, its palette of colours that are quite as rich and surreal as any in Trainspotting.

The metropolis, at once deranged, grotesque and magical, embodies all of Boyle's signature motifs – the amorality of Shallow Grave, the mob mayhem of 28 Days Later, the enchanted child's perspective of Millions – and renders them even more vivid.

As such, Slumdog Millionaire strikes me as a hugely important film in contemporary cinema. It's an advertisement for the dramatic potential of the non-Western city. Mumbai, Chennai, Shanghai, Lagos: they, not New York or Los Angeles, over-familiar and culturally declining cities both, are where any writers and directors should be heading today. They offer more energy, extremity, humanity – fillips to the imagination.

Sure, there are risks involved for those who elect to make that kind of creative migration. These days any film set in a poor or developing nation will attract scrutiny.

What we now call the Third World was patronised or ignored by moviemakers for much of the 20th century; it's no bad thing if their successors are forced to think more deeply about what they're doing.

Especially when, following the success of City of God, a cinematic sub-genre – let's call it ghetto picturesque – has developed so that, in films like the (marvellous) Bourne Ultimatum, poor neighbourhoods full of veiled women, market stalls and bearded elders feature as little more than gritty wallpaper, edgy backdrops across which hurtle maverick agents and secret-service free runners.

I've heard it said that Slumdog Millionaire itself is patronising, that it doesn't say enough about imperialism, that it prettifies suffering and poverty. To which I can only say: nonsense.

Boyle is not a political director, but his film is incalculably more radical than the glossy, blinged-out pictures that emerge every week from the studios of Mumbai. His screenwriter is Simon Beaufoy, best known for The Full Monty, also a portrait of economically ravaged underdogs trying to make a life for themselves.

Their collaboration here is a tricked-out, kinetic throwback to the crowd-pleasing, emotionally intense social dramas that India excelled at during the Fifties and Sixties, epic sagas in which young men, impelled by a hunger for justice and believing in a better future for their nation, fought against local gossips, corrupt moneylenders and predatory landlords.

Indian directors rarely make those movies these days; good on Boyle for trying to do so.

The film wouldn't be half as moving were it not for Dev Patel. He's a little hesitant and muted at first, but refines a melancholic heroism that soon becomes very winning.

We feel like whooping as his character rides on top of railway carriages, escapes from Dickensian villains about to blind young children in order to boost their begging potential, risks everything to win the love of his beloved Latika (Freida Pinto).

Slumdog Millionaire is as acerbic as it is clear-eyed about the brutal power dynamics in modern-day Mumbai. But, at the same time, what makes it so warming and what has been inspiring audiences all across the world to cheer at its rousing ending, is its passion for a place that writer Suketu Mehta has described as a "maximum city".

Mumbai has been through hell recently. But Slumdog Millionaire, whose everyman hero is a Muslim, is a wonderful tribute to it and to its people. It is, in fact, a maximum film.

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Slumdog Millionaire

What I feel for this movie isn't just admiration, its mad love. And I couldn't be more surprised. The plot reeks of uplift: An illiterate slum kid from Mumbai goes on the local TV version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and comes off like a brainiac. Who wants to see that? Final answer: You do. Slumdog Millionaire has the goods to bust out as a scrappy contender in the Oscar race. It's modern India standing in for a world in full economic spin. It's an explosion of color and light with the darkness ever ready to invade. It's a family film of shocking brutality, a romance haunted by sexual abuse, a fantasy of wealth fueled by crushing poverty.
You won't find many fairy tales that open with a graphic torture scene. The cops think 18-year-old Jamal Malik (a sensational Dev Patel) is a fraud. Goaded by the show's host (the superb Anil Kapoor), the police inspector (Irrfan Khan) is determined to beat the truth out of Jamal before he goes back on the show and hits the jackpot of 20 million rupees. Presumably this is not the way Regis Philbin ran things when the show hit America in 1999.
Brimming with humor and heartbreak, Slumdog Millionaire meets at the border of art and commerce and lets one flow into the other as if that were the natural order of things. Sweet. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) brings focus to Q & A, the episodic Vikas Swarup novel on which the film is based. Still, the MVP here is Danny Boyle, who directs the film brilliantly. Boyle is the Irish-Catholic working-class Brit who put his surreal mark on zombies (28 Days Later) and smack addicts (Trainspotting), and made us see ourselves in their blood wars. Those movies were so potent, as was his 1994 debut, Shallow Grave that we looked the other way when Boyle went Hollywood with The Beach and screwed up with A Life Less Ordinary. Somehow we knew that Boyle had the stuff to work miracles.
Here's the proof. We learn the history of Jamal and the other principal characters in flashbacks, as Jamal answers questions on the TV show not from book knowledge — he has none — but his own life experiences. Jamal is searching for two people from his childhood: his wild older brother Salim (an outstanding Madhur Mittal), now a thief and killer, and his adored Latika (the achingly lovely Freida Pinto), now stepping up from child prostitute to plaything of a gangster. Every incident, including the brothers' watching their mother die in an anti-Muslim riot, feeds into Jamal's answers on the show. OK, the concept bends coincidence to the breaking point. But Jamal's traumatic youth is his lifeline. Boyle makes magic realism part of the film's fabric, the essential part that lets in hope without compromising integrity.
Anthony Dod Mantle uses compact digital cameras to move with speed and stealth through the slums and palaces of Mumbai. The film is a visual wonder, propelled by A.R. Rahman's hip-hopping score and Chris Dickens' kinetic editing. The whoosh of action and romance pulls you in, but it's the bruised characters that hold you there. Every step Jamal takes toward his final answer could get him killed. Even in the Bollywood musical number that ends the film, joy and pain are still joined in the dance. The no-bull honesty of Slum dog Millionaire hits you hard. It's the real deal. No cheating.

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