The odds are always stacked against even the smartest contestants on a TV game show, but the odds against 18-year-old Jamal Malik — the Mumbai-born "slumdog" of the title — are reeeeally steep.
This is a kid with no education. He was orphaned at 7, grew up in the endless shantytowns around India's commercial capital, and now serves tea as a profession.
None of this has prepared him for the sort of questions they ask on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire:
"In Alexander Dumas' book The Three Musketeers, two of the musketeers are called Athos and Porthos. What was the name of the third Musketeer?"
The likelihood that Jamal, or for that matter any friend he might conceivably phone, will be able to answer such a question is so slim — and he has done so well at the game — that the show calls in the police to find out what his scam is. Between his TV appearances, they try to beat a confession out of him. All he can tell them is, "I knew the answers."
The camera, though, whooshes back to how he knew them — life lessons from a childhood almost Dickensian in its deprivation and excess. There were manipulative adults, brutal authority figures and a brother who went as wrong as Jamal went right.
Also wild good times and a girl named Latika, to whom Jamal has been devoted, and whom he's been trying to rescue from various calamities since he was 7 years old.
It would be hard to overstate how gloriously frenetic Slumdog Millionaire gets as its story leaps from fistfights atop luxury high-rises to the harrowing anti-Muslim riots that kill Jamal's mother to the playfully raucous tourist scams he and his brother run at the Taj Mahal.
The film was shot not on sets like some Bollywood romance, but in the real, teeming, boisterous Mumbai. It has a cleverly intricate screenplay by the writer of The Full Monty and direction by Trainspotting's Danny Boyle, who almost seems to be remaking that earlier movie, only with lots more romance and a plot hopped up on subcontinental steroids.
Young Dev Patel, who plays Jamal, races through eye-popping, music-fueled action sequences like some latter-day D'Artagnan, always intent — even when he's appearing on TV — on finding and rescuing the love of his life, who forever seems to be just out of reach.
Romantic, action-packed and always held together by an intriguing social conscience, Slumdog Millionaire is a rapturous crowd pleaser. I realize it's also a tad foreign to be mainstream movie fare in America — but if there's any justice, it's going to be a huge hit.
Ours is, after all, an age when cross-cultural impulses inflect everything from music to presidential elections. And Slumdog could hardly be more cross-cultural: a romantic adventure set in India, financed in Europe, made by English filmmakers, featuring Muslim characters speaking Hindi, with a climax hinging on the answer to a question about a French novel. And it's a blast. (Recommended)