(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: An 18-year-old street boy tells the story of his life to a police commissioner. He has been arrested on suspicion of cheating for answering too many questions on a television quiz show. Each episode in his life explains how he knew one of the questions he was asked on the show. Together the chapters form a mosaic of the life of a Muslim street child on the streets of Mumbai, India. Much of the story seems distorted for melodramatic effect. The concept of the film makes it seem light, but the first reel is very violent and perhaps harrowing. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a look at life in modern day India from the bottom up. The main character is Jamal Malik, who at an early age was a "slumdog." Slumdogs seem to be parentless children living wild in the streets who frequently die early or grow into gangsters. Jamal has a chance at something a little better. He is on the Hindi version of the popular quiz program "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" In fact, he has gone higher in the program than anyone else ever has. And the police want to know how can a slumdog without an education do so well without cheating? But Jamal claims he really knew all the answers. Each question he answered he knew from some chapter in his life. He tells the police this story of his life by telling them the incidents from which he knew the answers to the questions. We flash back and forth from the recent past on the quiz show where he is browbeaten and manipulated by the show host to the more distant pass when Jamal's integrity and character are formed by the beatings he gets in school and the predators he has to fight off and escape from.

The chapters Jamal describes add up to a very disturbing view of lives of crime, violence, and religious strife. We see an operation that turns healthy children into maimed beggars. We see some of the Bombay Riots of 1992 and 1993. There is slavery. Eventually the film turns into more of a crime film. The crime portion of the film reaches his climax at the same time that Jamal is one step away from the highest prize on the quiz show. Even when we get to the quiz show, where we would be expecting more civilized behavior, Jamal still has to defend his life against a system that is rotten throughout.

Eclectic director Danny Boyle has given us such diverse films as TRAINSPOTTING, 28 DAYS LATER, MILLIONS, and SUNSHINE (2007). To make this film in India he can leverage from the lower costs and use the resources of the largest film industry in the world, the Bombay (a.k.a. Mumbai) film industry. He even incorporated a Bollywood-like dance production number. Most of the actors are Indian and will not be familiar to American audiences. One exception might be the Police Inspector played by Irfan Khan. Khan has been in several major films seen internationally of late. His keystone performance as far as the international audience is concerned was as Ashoke the husband in Mira Nair's very fine film THE NAMESAKE. Since then he has also been seen in A MIGHTY HEART and THE DARJEELING LIMITED.

The premise of the film is extremely contrived. Jamal does not have broad knowledge. He just happens to learn the answers to each question, each in a different chapter of his life and each in the same order the questions were asked on the quiz show. The odds against this happening must be colossal. The fact that his personal story and the story of his stint on the quiz show both reach their climax at the same time is also seems a bit artificial.

This is a minor point of the film, but it really stands out for me. Not only does the Mumbai police kidnap the main character, but he is (semi-graphically) tortured. And he is arrested and tortured only on a suspicion of cheating on a quiz show, and the charge is based on an accusation of just one person who has no official standing. It is bad enough if the police routinely torture suspects, but if they do this on only one person's biased accusation then something is rotten in the state of Maharashtra. It may cause even more controversy because, though the film was shot in India, it is a British/American co-production directed by Danny Boyle. So SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is made by outsiders but it is based on a novel by an Indian, Vikas Swarup.

It is hard to tell if the brutality of the system is entirely real, but the story is engaging. I rate SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper