Poverty, deprivation, murder, love, family bonds, and TV game shows are among the unlikely combination of ingredients in the enchanting “Slumdog Millionaire,” a movie full of familiar elements that somehow feels wholly original, not to mention entertaining and inspiring. It’s the latest offering from British director Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine”), one of the best filmmakers currently working, who seems bent on exploring new genres every time he makes a movie. The amazing thing is that he almost always succeeds.
Boyle went to India this time around, shooting about a quarter of the film in subtitled Hindi and using a lot of local actors to tell the story, which turns out to be deceptively simple. It is as follows: 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a one-time street urchin who now works as a gofer at a telemarketing center, has made it to the final question on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Suspicious that an uneducated nobody could possibly know all those answers, the police interrogate Jamal, who explains, one question at a time, the events of his life that gave him the knowledge that wound up being so useful.
That means lots of flashbacks for us, starting with the rambunctious young Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) and his slightly older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail) living in the slums of Mumbai. They lead a Dickensian existence, including a brief stint with a sinister Fagin-like leader who teaches street kids to sing for spare change and will do anything to make his earners more pathetic and thus more profitable. We see early on that though Salim and Jamal are in the same circumstances, they’re responding to them in opposite ways. Jamal is gentle, resourceful, and sly; Salim is opportunistic and desperate.
They meet a girl their age, Latika (Rubiana Ali), whom Jamal wants to include as their “third musketeer” despite Salim’s unspecified objections. Time passes. Latika is out of their lives, but Jamal has not forgotten her. He and Salim continue to live on the streets, Jamal hustling tourists at the Taj Mahal, Salim getting involved with gangster types. Soon enough (and with Salim now played by Madhur Mittal and Latika by the lovely Freida Pinto), the three young people’s lives intersect again through Javed (Mahesh Manjrekar), a cruel racketeer with a stranglehold on the slum they grew up in.
It’s in the midst of this turmoil that Jamal has become a contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” though we don’t learn all the details of how and why until later. The film is based on the novel “Q and A,” by Vikas Swarup, and adapted by Simon Beaufoy, who wrote “The Full Monty” and this year’s overlooked charmer “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.” From the moment of its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day Weekend it’s been pegged as this year’s Feel-Good Independent Film (think “Little Miss Sunshine” or “Juno”), and while it certainly does inspire good feelings and general happiness — anyone who is not smiling by the time the Bollywood-style closing-credits dance number arrives is surely dead inside — it gets there only after journeying through numerous crises and setbacks. No wonder Dev Patel, in the lead role, looks so stone-faced and un-charismatic for most of the film.
It is a testament to Boyle’s talents, both technical and storytelling-related, that the movie works so well. He juggles three different timelines flawlessly: Jamal on his second night of the game show, Jamal being interrogated while watching a videotape of his first night, and Jamal’s life story leading up to this point. As usual, Boyle finds creative ways to make ordinary filmmaking devices like flashbacks seem lively and innovative. For example, as Jamal sits down to face his final question on the “Millionaire” set, he remembers being questioned and slapped around the night before, still reeling from it. To enhance this feeling of disorientation, Boyle has the slap occur in the present — a hand literally reaches up from under Jamal’s chair on the TV soundstage — as a segue to the flashback of when it actually happened. You’ll miss it if you blink, but the effect is perfect: You feel Jamal’s dazedness, and the sensation that time has run together, that everything in his life is happening all at once.
Boyle’s general skill, which extends to hiring competent staff like editor Chris Dickens and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, helps compensate for the plot’s occasional implausible or predictable element, and for Patel’s often plain performance. The tykes who play the lead characters as children are infectiously enthusiastic, the way only non-professional child actors can be. Overall, it’ll make you feel like a million bucks, or 20 million rupees.
B+ (1 hr., 59 min.; )