Early into British filmmaker Danny Boyle’s most excellent, Slumdog Millionaire, we see Jamal, our plucky hero—all of 8 years old—dive feet first into the depths of a steaming Mumbai outhouse, only to emerge, crowing and covered in excrement, triumphantly clutching the object of his worship: a photo of Amitabh Bachchan, India’s biggest movie star. A movie star whose helicopter just happens to be landing a few feet away from said outhouse.
Anyone who’s seen Boyle’s 1996 cult classic, Trainspotting, will instantly, squirmingly, recall Ewan McGregor’s similar descent into “the worst toilet in Scotland.” But Slumdog‘s scatological scene isn’t one director’s exercise in self-referential back-patting. Rather, it sets up the big themes of the movie: the Dickensian tensions between the have and the have nots; between the Technicolor perfection of Bollywood and the shit-stained reality of the Mumbai ghetto.
In Trainspotting, McGregor’s drug-addled dive illustrates the depths of his depravity: He’ll do anything for that elusive high. Jamal’s plunge, told in a flashback, illustrates the depths of his determination: Jamal (Dev Patel), now an 18-year-old orphan, will do anything for love, no matter how elusive, no matter how unlikely. Even if that means competing on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the latest craze to sweep India.
Jamal’s quest is quixotic at best, given that he’s not exactly quiz-show material. He’s barely eking out a living, an uneducated “chai wallah,” serving tea at one of Mumbai’s many call centers. How would he know the answers to questions about Indian poetry and whose face appears on an American $100 bill? As the oily host, played by Bollywood star Anil Kapoor, declares, even university professors are stumped by the quiz show’s questions.
But Jamal is in lurrrrv. He’s doesn’t want to be a millionaire so much as he wants to win the jeweled hand of his true love, Latika (Freida Pinto), who is living a life of virtual, sexual slavery with a vicious gangster. The semi-grown Jamal, as played by Patel, is all soulful eyes and Obama ears. He should have been hardened by a life growing up on the streets, but instead, he’s gotten sweeter, even more idealistic. He really, truly believes that you can live on love. He’s the classical hero, doing battle with the evildoers, rich fat cats who prey on the weak and the poor. In Jamal’s world, the bad guys really are bad, and the damsels really are in distress.
We first see Jamal as he’s being tortured by one of the film’s bad guys: a Mumbai police officer who has arrested him under suspicion of cheating. Jamal is just a question away from winning the whole 20 million rupee jackpot, and no one can believe that the lowly chai wallah really knows the answer to that question. (And as torture scenes go, this one manages to be both cringe-inducing and Keystone cops funny at the same time.) Against this backdrop, a Millionaire-esque question pops up for the viewer to consider: “Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? A. He cheated. B. He’s lucky. C. He’s a genius. D. It is written.”
Jamal’s explanation of how he managed to do it serves as the structure for the rest of the film, which is told through a dizzying series of flashbacks and flash-forwards. Three different sets of actors play Jamal, his thuggy big brother, Salim, and the beauteous Latika, at different stages in their lives. Each question on the show correlates to a life-changing incident in Jamal’s life, from his stinky outhouse plunge, to the murder of his Muslim mother by Hindu extremists, to how he and Salim ended up hustling outside the Taj Mahal after fleeing from a nightmarish orphanage, the likes of which would make even Charles Dickens blanch.
Speaking of Dickens, his influence is felt throughout most of the film, which is based on the novel, Q&A, by the Indian writer/diplomat Vikas Swarup. But Bollywood figures just as prominently: star-crossed, chaste lovers, melodrama, dastardly villains, a love triangle, personal sacrifice, humor and untold cruelty. Then there’s the to-die-for soundtrack, some of it performed by M.I.A, the Anglo-Sri Lankan hip-hop auteur. Mumbai, the home of Bollywood, plays front and center here, too, from the feral street kids pounding on the tinted windows of Mercedes Benzes ferrying indifferent millionaires to the mansions among the landfills to the ubiquitous call centers. Slumdog, with its schizoid camera work and intensity of emotions, is a color-saturated head rush of a movie. Sure, it’s over-the-top, it’s beyond over-the-top, but somehow it works—fabulously.
Teresa Wiltz is a regular contributor to The Root .