Slumdog Millionaire – in cinemas now

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which cleared up at the recent Golden Globe and Critics Choice Awards, is a winning ‘rags to Raja’ drama set in contemporary Mumbai.

Slumdog tells the story of Jamal Malik, chiefly played by Dev Patel (aka Anwar from Skins); an 18-year-old Muslim ‘chai wallah’ (tea boy) for a mobile phone call centre who is just one correct answer away from 20 million rupees on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? which apparently features exactly the same format, graphics, studio set up and theme tune as the good old British version.

During a pause in filming, Jamal is arrested and whisked away to a police cell on suspicion of cheating. How could a lowly chai wallah who came up from the slums of Mumbai possibly know all the answers?

The police suspect help from a member of the audience, a wire, or (hilariously) a microchip under the skin, but despite suffering their various methods of questioning, Jamal maintains his innocence. He then recounts the story of his life so far, the tales of his turbulent upbringing which is peppered with violence and cruelty in the sprawling Juhu shanty towns of Mumbai, his escape from a Dickensian orphanage with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), their travels on the road together, masquerading as Taj Mahal tour guides to gullible tourists, and of Latika (Frieda Pinto), his lost childhood love.

Each episode, recounted in a series of flashbacks, shows how Jamal links the increasingly difficult questions given to him by the Millionaire host (played by seasoned Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor, who here looks more than a little bit like Trevor Eve from Waking the Dead ) to events from his past, and is very slickly and neatly edited together, with the more violent scenes delivered in Boyle’s trademark visceral style.

As we see Jamal growing up and learning to cope with the world around him, we see a developing Mumbai emerging around him – one scene sees him reunited with Salim on a building site. The two of them look out across the city scape, pointing out the dizzying tower blocks of apartments which have risen up from the slums which they grew up in, emblematic both of their estranged relationship, and the widening divide between the rich and poor in an emerging industrial economy.

Bollywood enthusiasts and world cinema fans may take umbrage at the film’s liberal use of language – many of the characters speak perfect British English, and not the Indian English dialect spoken by many real-life Mumbai residents. Credit has to be given to Boyle though, who, along with casting director Loveleen Tandan, managed to insert as much Hindi dialogue into the film as they possibly could, under the auspices of Warner Brothers, who reportedly wanted no more than 10% of the dialogue to be changed from the English of Simon Beaufoy’s script.

Nevertheless, a feelgood factor pervades the movie; it should not at all be viewed as a hard hitting look at the plight of India’s modern poor, nor should it be written off as a sugary and sentimental ride on the schmaltzer. It is a neat serving of drama, romance and humour, propelled by an energetic soundtrack composed by A. R. Rahman, which features several contributions from M.I.A. Whilst the climax of the film (and the last question) is as predictable as you like, Slumdog remains an eminently watchable and enjoyable ride.

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