This Mumbai-set rags-to-riches story is a vibrant and affecting film, writes Michael Dwyer
THE MOST successful international television franchise in our globalised world, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, has been adapted in more than 100 countries since its UK debut in 1998. It's broadcast in any number of different languages and asks questions tailored for individual countries, but the format is the same everywhere, building tension through the multiple options for answers, the lifelines offered to contestants, and crucially, in its distinctive use of lighting and heart-thumping music.
Three years ago, French writer- director Patrice Leconte seized on the show's dramatic potential within the context of a movie when he featured it effectively towards the end of My Best Friend.
Now Danny Boyle goes the distance with the exhilarating Slumdog Millionaire, which opens in Mumbai in 2006. Teenaged Jamal Malik is one question away from winning the jackpot of 20 million rupees (currently about €297,000 euro) on the Indian version of the show. (Celador, the hands-on company that devised the programme, is credited as a co-producer on the movie.)
Suspicions are raised by the show's patronising presenter (Anil Kapoor) because of the uneducated young Jamal's impoverished background. As the investigation proceeds, Jamal explains how he learned each of the answers through his youthful experiences, living on the streets with his canny older brother. This is a cue for a series of seamlessly integrated flashbacks ranging from the boys witnessing their mother's murder during a violent attack on Muslims, to being groomed as beggars by adults so unscrupulous that they will gouge out a child's eyes to increase his or her earning potential.
Slumdog Millionaireis based on the novel Q&Aby Indian author Vikas Swarup, and the film's central structural device seems contrived at first. It's almost queasily reminiscent of Wink Martindale's folksy old spoken hit single, Deck of Cards, in which a soldier, charged with being disrespectful in church, outlines how each playing card symbolises his religious beliefs.
In the artfully plotted screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, formerly best known for writing The Full Monty, Jamal's explanations prove "bizarrely plausible", as one character describes them, and the movie exerts such a compelling hold that it defies cynicism. The brothers are played at different ages by three sets of young actors, among whom Dev Patel makes an auspicious film debut, investing the 18-year-old Jamal with a wonderfully natural exuberance. And there is an endearing chemistry between Patel and Freida Pinto as Jamal's childhood sweetheart in the movie's irresistible story of first love.
Anthony Dod Mantle's fluid, mobile camerawork captures the vitality of the teeming authentic locations as observed from Boyle's perspective as an inquisitive outsider. Boyle eschews sentimentality in unflinchingly addressing the rampant poverty of India through a Dickensian tale in which Jamal is a contemporary Oliver Twist.
This hard-edged but vibrant and affecting drama is assembled with social concern, emotional depth, dramatic urgency and an infectious energy by Boyle, the director of Trainspottingand 28 Days Later, and is propelled by an exuberant music soundtrack all the way to a rousing, unforgettable finale.
Unheralded before its premiere at the Toronto festival last September, Slumdog Millionairerichly deserves to emulate Jamal's achievement on the TV show by taking the Oscar for Best Picture next month.
If you doubt that claim, phone a friend who has seen it, or ask the audience.
Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto 15A cert, gen release, 120 min