A young man from the slums of Mumbai wins the top prize on a TV game show; but his real goal is far more romantic than just money in the new film by Scottish-born director Danny Boyle. Alan Silverman calls Slumdog Millionaire 'a joyous celebration of life amid harsh and often tragic realities.'
It's the Indian version of the world-famous quiz show and the nation is transfixed by the amazing success of the shy young contestant Jamal.
But how could a teenager who grew up in the teeming slums, who never had a formal education, who works serving tea to the operators in a Mumbai call center …how could he know the answers to all those questions ranging from sports records to literary masterpieces?
Arrested and accused of cheating, Jamal endures harsh interrogation as he explains his life story filled with experiences destined to provide the answers to the quiz show questions; but the money is not why he went on the show.
English-born Dev Patel, known for his character Anwar on the popular British TV series Skins, stars as the grown-up "slumdog" Jamal.
"He is a survivor …a battler …and he will move mountains to reach his destiny," explains Patel. "He is extra special and extra-driven and he's got this ambition about him. Whereas all the kids around him may dream of saving enough money to buy trainers [athletic shoes] or maybe a new car, he wants to find his soul mate - this girl - in a city of, I don't know, 18-million people. It's crazy and admirable in the same light."
The girl is Latika. She and Jamal meet as street kids forced by a neighborhood gangster to beg for money. Jamal and his older brother Selim escape along with Latika; but she falls back and allows herself to be re-captured so the boys can get away. Jamal vows to find and rescue her: the quest takes him a decade and all the way to the glittering set of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire." Indian actress Freida Pinto co-stars as Latika.
"It is Jamal who comes back for her every time,"explains Pinto. "It is his faith and belief in the love that they share that kind of gives her the inspiration …the motivation …to just keep going and get her love back."
Born and raised in Mumbai, Pinto is happy that the film, which shows the often-dark underbelly of the great city, also celebrates its powerful spirit.
"Mumbai is literally the backbone of this film," she notes. "Without Mumbai I am not sure this film would be that exciting. It adds all the poverty that you see. At the same time you see the happiness you see the sadness. Everything comes from this one city, Mumbai."
Slumdog Millionaire is the latest underdog success story from screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who had audiences cheering for the unemployed amateur strippers in his 1997 hit The Full Monty. Beaufoy started with the novel Q and A by Indian author Vikas Swarup and then created a screen life for the characters after spending time in Mumbai.
"Rather than 'parachute in' as the white middle-class Londoner into the slum and go 'okay chaps, we're going to make a film about this. All the slum kids stand in a line and off we go …' I think that's completely the wrong way to make a film and very disrespectful of a different country and culture," explains Beaufoy. " My process is to go there, talk to people, listen and pick up the stories on the streets.
"I went to a lot of little tea stores where they sit around drinking this tea which is so sweet it strips the enamel off your teeth …amazing stuff …and that was my process," adds the screenwriter. "I think that allows us in to make that kind of film. If you listen you take account of their sensibilities and you build the story from the inside out. That gives it its authenticity, I suppose."
Director Danny Boyle says capturing that spirit and sense of community was vital to making this story, which is essentially a fable, feel real.
"I can't speak for all of India because I know very little about it and just went around to a few cities, really, but then I got to know [Mumbai] quite a bit and it is just an extraordinary place," Boyle says. "It is a gift waiting for the people with the right attitude. If you go in with the right attitude, which is basically a humble attitude …you can't go in with all the arrogance that film crews normally arrive with …the city gives you back a hundred-fold. It is just waiting to have its stories told. It is like New York in the 1980's. It is just bursting with stories and potential for filmmakers. It is alive!"
The cast of Slumdog Millionaire features many popular Bollywood actors including Anil Kapoor as the game show host and Irfan Khan plays the police inspector who investigates Jamal's story. The musical score is by Indian composer A.R. Rahman.