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FILM REVIEW: Slumdog Millionaire

Who Wants to Be a Slumdog?: A Dickensian tale for the 21st century

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Slumdog Millionaire
Starring Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, and Madhur Mittal
Directed by Danny Boyle
Rated R

Slumdog Millionaire is a tale worthy of Dickens, but set in a distinctly 21st century world. In modern day Mumbai, where Slumdog unfolds, Indian telephone operators study the finer points of UK pop culture, the better to service their Brit customers worlds away, while an Indian spin on the TV game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? promises a show biz-quick way out of abject poverty.

British director Danny Boyle's Slumdog is a vivid, kinetic adventure story of one boy striving to pull himself out of miserable poverty along with the girl he loves. It's all set against a schizophrenic backdrop of sparkling modernity and centuries-old poverty.

Jamal (played as a child by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and as an adult by Dev Patel) and older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail and Madhur Mittal) are introduced as barefoot urchins in grimy clothes who are chased by police wielding clubs from their impromptu playground on an airport runway.

Like silent filmmakers, Boyle (Trainspotting) has always embraced the heart-pumping properties of a good chase, and his film is filled with them. The brothers' circumstances are grim: a mother killed by anti-Muslim fanatics; residency near a dump where children sleep in open-air teepees. As much a boy's adventure story as a sympathetic portrait of what life can be like in the Third World, Slumdog flashes back and forth between 18-year-old Jamal competing on the set of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and his hard childhood.

An unctuous TV host (Anil Kapoor) mocks Jamal for his ability to answer the show's questions despite his impoverished beginnings. His winning streak is suspicious enough to alert the police, who try to torture the truth out of the boy. It's clear Jamal's victory is a vindication of India's poor. He is a kind of folk hero to the masses.

Slumdog is imprinted with a uniquely action-packed, peppy Boyle-ian sensibility, from its guttersnipe humor to an unrestrained joy in the imagination and hopefulness of children.

One of Boyle's most astute observations is how childhood is its own subculture, an imaginative, exciting universe all its own. Flashbacks show Jamal and Salim's entrepreneurial gusto, their ability to take whatever opportunity to make a buck or steal some bread that comes their way.

Despite some outwardly grim circumstances, Slumdog Millionaire remains surprisingly ebullient. It's filled with movement and candy colors, and Boyle is able to see the wonder of slums through the eyes of children who race through this vibrant universe. This is no Kite Runner or 400 Blows tale of misery-plagued urchins, but a feel-good coming-of-age story that offers a transcendent tale of a mistreated waif. And this story is buoyed along by its simple (and, some might say, simplistic) love story. Jamal strives to reunite with Latika, who has grown into a gorgeous young woman and whose beauty has become a liability.

The improbabilities tend to stack up as the film sails along. There are atmospheric, romantic reunions at train stations that seem too perfectly-timed to be true. And some of the slumdog children have supernatural memories, able to recognize former buddies by the sound of their voices.

To truly enjoy Slumdog Millionaire you have to willfully suspend your disbelief and give yourself over to a film smartly released at a very opportune cultural moment. In the midst of a perhaps more thoughtful than most holiday season, Jamal is an Oliver Twist circa 2008 who reminds us of the lives that exist on society's margins and the magical ability of good luck and a good heart to change them.

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