Film Review: Slumdog Millionaire

High-energy picaresque of a poor Indian boy's rise to fame on a TV quiz show should be another solid hit for Fox Searchlight.

Will there someday be a subgenre of films inspired by “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The international TV quiz-show phenomenon, which uses the same format, set and music cues no matter the country, already played a role in the climax of Patrice Leconte’s French comedy My Best Friend, and now it’s the centerpiece of Danny Boyle’s Mumbai-based Slumdog Millionaire. The participation of “Millionaire” production company Celador may raise a red flag, but this is a bracingly energetic and original story of struggle, survival, upward mobility and romantic yearning that should be a major art-house crossover hit.

Adapting from the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) sustains the clever conceit of revealing the life story of unlikely young “Millionaire” contestant Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) through the reasons behind his successful answers to the questions posed by preening host Prem (veteran Bollywood star Anil Kapoor). The framing device is a brutal interrogation by police who are convinced this uneducated “slumdog” must be cheating.

Boyle uses three actors each to portray the three central characters at different ages: brothers Jamal and Salim, born in poverty and prematurely orphaned, and Latika, the spirited homeless girl they bond with. Their odyssey is downright Dickensian, as the trio is taken into the fold of a sleazy entrepreneur who turns orphaned children into an army of street beggars, cruelly blinding the occasional boy to make him even more pitiable to passersby. Jamal and Salim escape their overseer’s clutches, but poor Latika falls back and is left behind. Smitten with the young girl, Jamal makes it his life’s mission to find Latika and rescue her.

Subsequent episodes show the brothers conning tourists as unauthorized guides to the Taj Mahal, then charting radically different paths: Jamal as a chai wallah (tea vendor) at one of those ubiquitous Indian phone-call centers, Salim rising to the inner ranks of the Mumbai criminal underworld. Jamal’s reunion with Latika, now a gangster’s mistress, is a key piece of the story’s puzzle, leading to a climax filled with romance, melodrama and suspense.

Filming in a dizzying array of real-life locations with the ever-moving digital camera of Anthony Dod Mantle (The Last King of Scotland, Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Millions), Boyle again proves himself one of modern cinema’s most deft high-energy directors. His portrait of today’s India is vibrant, fascinating, and filled with both shocking squalor and exotic beauty.

Slumdog Millionaire couldn’t be as accessible as it is without shrewd casting, and all three trios of young actors playing the leads are highly appealing. Dev Patel of the BBC teen-angst series “Skins” is disarming as the older Jamal, bringing both vulnerability and quiet strength to the movie’s main role. Madhur Mittal maintains our sympathy for the brother who takes the wrong path, and lovely Freida Pinto as the mature Latika is a heroine worth fighting for. Indian icon Kapoor is amusing as the conceited quiz-show host, and Irrfan Khan (last seen as the father in Mira Nair’s The Namesake) lends depth to the potentially thankless role of Jamal’s fierce police nemesis.

Clever, stylish and highly entertaining, Slumdog Millionaire is one of the rare foreign-language films with potential to reach a big stateside audience.