“I did it for love,” is an excuse oft-used to describe the reason for a lot of crazy, seemingly outlandish things people do. It’s a catch-all statement that once spoken is meant to immediately ward off any inquiries about one’s temporary insanity. Indeed, love is the driving force of the plot for “Slumdog Millionaire” and propels its main character to make choices one might not normally make. With love at its core, the film then branches out to explore additional themes of hope, desire and destiny.
It opens with Jamal being interrogated by two policemen whose tactics rival those ordered at Guantanamo Bay. Jamal is an 18-year-old, uneducated boy from one of India’s poorer neighborhoods (see also: slums), who happens to be one question away from winning the ultimate prize in the country’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Doctors and lawyers routinely fail to get beyond 60,000 rupees on the show (Jamal currently stands at 10 million) and suspicions of malfeasance on Jamal’s part arise. During one of the show’s patented mid-episode hiatuses, he is arrested and questioned.
Playing back a recording of the show to that point, Jamal is instructed to describe how someone of his background could possibly know the answer to each individual question. Through flashback, he tells his life story and the key moments leading to him acquiring the information needed to give a correct answer. His life is laden with tiny epiphanies that little does he know will come back to help in his quest for millions.
As a child, Jamal and his brother Salim, lose their mother in a tribal ambush and are forced to take refuge in a shelter resembling a storage container. A girl, also recently orphaned by the same event, has nowhere to turn and is invited to seek cover in the same container. She is Latika and becomes Jamal’s lifelong infatuation. Like all stories of love and longing, they are separated by time and circumstance, but Jamal launches a last-ditch effort to win her back by appearing on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”
“Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” was a phenomenon upon its initial airing, at least it part because of the dramatics inherent in the music and stalling antics by Regis Philbin. “Slumdog” takes the suspense already built into that show and compounds it with a timeless story of love and yearning. The results are extraordinary. With every new question replayed for Jamal’s explanation, it keeps the viewer eager to hear him peel away a new layer of his life. Every explanation leads to the next question and the tension builds and repeats, eventually reaching a crescendo.
Directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”), the film transcends expectations of the perhaps simplistic plot. The screen is infused with color and continues exploration of the beauteous landmarks and landscapes, prominently displayed in last year’s “The Darjeeling Limited,” that India has to offer. It is a country that gets little exposure on film in the United States, mainly because we find Bollywood so bizarre. Their movies are really imported over here. They are exceptionally long, by our standards, and even their Hitchcockian thrillers pause to incorporate song and dance numbers.
However, the script by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”), based on a book by Vikas Swarup, perfectly adapts India’s sensibilities and culture for Western audiences. It seamlessly weaves the present of Jamal’s explanations with the past of his life story into an easily accessible narrative.
Jamal, Salim and Latika are all portrayed by three different actors during the major time periods of Jamal’s life. It’s refreshing to a see a great movie starring nobody I’d ever seen or heard of before. So many movies these days are sold and marketed with actors attached to them. Hype is then generated through the internet, which mainly focuses on the bigger movies. It’s easy for a smaller film to slip through the cracks and it’s up to reviews to give them some exposure.
“Slumdog Millionaire” reaffirms the idea that a great film can be created through story and character, no matter the name of the person onscreen. This is the type of film that restores any wavering faith one might have in the medium and combines with a tale of inspiration and love. If you’re asking for this year’s charming little movie that could, akin to “Juno,” “Little Miss Sunshine” or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” before it, “Slumdog Millionaire” is your answer.