I so rarely get the chance to write this: here's a film that reminds me of Max Bygraves's 1970s chart classic, The Deck of Cards. This heartwarming monologue (originally recorded in the 40s) narrates the story of a humble soldier, hauled out of a church parade by a furious sergeant for playing cards. Before his disgusted commanding officer can send him to the glasshouse, this poor semi-literate squaddie explains that for him, the deck of cards is his Bible: the Ace is the one true God, the two is the Two Testaments, the three the Holy Trinity - and so on until the gruff CO, like Bygraves's entire listening public, is reduced to a quivering tearful jelly at this simple soldier's dignity and piety.
Something very similar happens in this wildly silly but perfectly watchable melodrama, adapted by screenwriter Simon Beaufoy from the 2005 novel Q&A by Vikas Swarup and directed by Danny Boyle. Despite being overpraised - it arrives garlanded with the kind of reviews that must have come out after the opening night of King Lear - this is still very effective entertainment.
The movie is about the Indian version of the hit TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Dev Patel plays Jamal Malik, a former Mumbai street-kid who has a job making tea at a call centre. He astonishes all of India by entering the show as a contestant and triumphantly getting question after question right. Is he a fraud? A savant genius? Or is something weird going on? His amazing winning streak means he has to come back the next evening for the final big-money question and overnight he is brutally interrogated by Mumbai cops convinced he is a cheat. They take him through each of the questions he got right, and Jamal's life story unfolds in flashback as our hero reveals that each question, like each of Max Bygraves's cards, has a special significance. His tale involves crime, drama, knockabout comedy and romance. Various characters determine his fate: his gangster brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), the love of his life Latika (Freida Pinto) and Prem (Anil Kapoor), the creepy quizmaster himself, who has his own interest in Jamal's staggering success.
This movie has interesting antecedents. It is not the first to be made about Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Patrice Leconte's 2006 film My Best Friend, starring Daniel Auteuil, features a nailbiting edition of the French version of Millionaire. Leconte's film, like Boyle's, culminates with a "phone a friend" showstopper and both cheekily suggest the show is transmitted live, when, in real life, it is of course recorded and edited well in advance, at least partly to weed out the cheats.
I have some knowledge of all this, incidentally. I was once the "friend" telephoned by a contestant on the show but at the crucial moment, my mobile phone was, shamingly, out of range. Chris Tarrant's face was reportedly a picture of polite bemusement as my voicemail message echoed pointlessly around the studio, before being smartly cut off and the contestant was permitted to phone another "friend". Naturally, hiccups like that don't make it on to air.
Slumdog Millionaire is co-produced by Celador Films, owners of the rights to the original TV show, and so it functions as a feature-length product placement for the programme, whose apotheosis here came when would-be cheat Major Charles Ingram tried to scam the quiz in 2001. All he got was a suspended sentence, a fine and minor celebrity status, and the show got mouthwatering publicity. In this film, poor Jamal is, simply on suspicion of wrongdoing, beaten to a pulp by the police and horribly tortured with electrodes - the nastiest interrogation scene I've watched for a while. But afterwards he makes it into the studio as fresh as a daisy. What the Mumbai police make of their unflattering portrayal, I can't imagine.
Despite the extravagant drama and some demonstrations of the savagery meted out to India's street children, this is a cheerfully undemanding and unreflective film with a vision of India that, if not touristy exactly, is certainly an outsider's view; it depends for its full enjoyment on not being taken too seriously.
Interestingly, the co-creator of Millionaire, Steven Knight, is himself a screenwriter who has scripted far more serious films than this: Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things (also co-produced by Celador) and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. Slumdog Millionaire really is gentle compared with, say, Robert Redford's satire Quiz Show and softcore compared with Danny Boyle's famous movies, Trainspotting and Shallow Grave. In fact, it's more of a kids' yarn, like his wacky caper Millions.
Well, for all this, it's got punch and narrative pizzazz: a strong, clear, instantly graspable storyline that doesn't encumber itself with character complexity, and the cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is tremendous. It's definitely got that quirky-underdog twinkle and the silverware glint of awards can't be far away.
Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" hits the ground running. This is a breathless, exciting story, heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time, about a Mumbai orphan who rises from rags to riches on the strength of his lively intelligence. The film's universal appeal will present the real India to millions of moviegoers for the first time.
The real India, supercharged with a plot as reliable and eternal as the hills. The film's surface is so dazzling that you hardly realize how traditional it is underneath. But it's the buried structure that pulls us through the story like a big engine on a short train.
By the real India, I don't mean an unblinking documentary like Louis Malle's "Calcutta" or the recent "Born Into Brothels." I mean the real India of social levels that seem to be separated by centuries. What do people think of when they think of India? On the one hand, Mother Teresa, "Salaam Bombay!" and the wretched of the earth. On the other, the "Masterpiece Theater"-style images of "A Passage to India," "Gandhi" and "The Jewel in the Crown."
The India of Mother Teresa still exists. Because it is side-by-side with the new India, it is easily seen. People living in the streets. A woman crawling from a cardboard box. Men bathing at a fire hydrant. Men relieving themselves by the roadside. You stand on one side of the Hooghly River, a branch of the Ganges that runs through Kolkuta, and your friend tells you, "On the other bank millions of people live without a single sewer line."
On the other hand, the world's largest middle class, mostly lower-middle, but all the more admirable. The India of "Monsoon Wedding." Millionaires. Mercedes-Benzes and Audis. Traffic like Demo Derby. Luxury condos. Exploding education. A booming computer segment. A fountain of medical professionals. Some of the most exciting modern English literature. A Bollywood to rival Hollywood.
"Slumdog Millionaire" bridges these two Indias by cutting between a world of poverty and the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire." It tells the story of an orphan from the slums of Mumbai who is born into a brutal existence. A petty thief, impostor and survivor, mired in dire poverty, he improvises his way up through the world and remembers everything he has learned.
His name is Jamel (played as a teenager by Dev Patel). He is Oliver Twist. High-spirited and defiant in the worst of times, he survives. He scrapes out a living at the Taj Mahal, which he did not know about but discovers by being thrown off a train. He pretends to be a guide, invents "facts" out of thin air, advises tourists to remove their shoes and then steals them. He finds a bit part in the Mumbai underworld, and even falls in idealized romantic love, that most elusive of conditions for a slumdog.
His life until he's 20 is told in flashbacks intercut with his appearance as a quiz show contestant. Pitched as a slumdog, he supplies the correct answer to question after question and becomes a national hero. The flashbacks show why he knows the answers. He doesn't volunteer this information. It is beaten out of him by the show's security staff. They are sure he must be cheating.
The film uses dazzling cinematography, breathless editing, driving music and headlong momentum to explode with narrative force, stirring in a romance at the same time. For Danny Boyle, it is a personal triumph. He combines the suspense of a game show with the vision and energy of "City of God" and never stops sprinting.
When I saw "Slumdog Millionaire" at Toronto, I was witnessing a phenomenon: dramatic proof that a movie is about how it tells itself. I walked out of the theater and flatly predicted it would win the Audience Award. Seven days later, it did. And that it could land a best picture Oscar nomination. We will see. It is one of those miraculous entertainments that achieves its immediate goals and keeps climbing toward a higher summit.