Rating: Rated MA15+ (strong themes and violence).
This film won the audience award in the recent Toronto Film Festival and it is a delight. Danny Boyle, who gave us “Trainspotting,” directs this equally energetic movie, which is set in the city of Mumbai, a city that has been described as half-order and half-mayhem and the commercial capital of India. Following a script written by Simon Beaufoy, and based on a novel, “Q and A” by Vikas Swarup, the film tells the story of an 18-year old orphan Indian, Jamal Malik (played by Dev Patel), who was a former street child from Mumbai and who now aims for the jackpot on “Kaun Banega Crorepati,” the popular Hindi version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” While one question away from 20 million rupees, the game show’s host, Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), who has become suspicious of Jamal for answering every question successfully and performing against every expectation, turns him over to the police on suspicion of fraud. The police torture and question Jamal about how he has the knowledge to do so well. No one knows that Jamal has gone onto the game show to try to contact his childhood sweetheart, Latika (Freida Pinto), who he knows watches the show every time it goes to air. Latika has prostituted herself to a gangster and lives in a violent world frequented by Jamal’s brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal), whose mobile phone number Jamal gives to the game show host before the final question is asked.
This is an imaginatively constructed movie, which literally teams with vitality and energy. The film graphically illustrates the gap between the poverty and wealth within India and is extraordinary in the attention to detail that lies at the core of Boyle’s intelligent direction. It is a film about the social mobility of India, its poverty, and the criminal corruption behind them that are all exposed in its story. The film delves into Jamal’s traumatic childhood through a series of vivid flashbacks, which provide the clues as to why Jamal answers all his questions correctly - each life episode revealing significant items of information that provide Jamal with the knowledge he needs. The camera work by Anthony Dod Mantle, with its vibrant colour and packed social comment, is outstanding; and the pace of the editing by Chris Dickens is equally good. This is a movie that is firmly and vitally connected with place and the rousing dance number in Bollywood-style that celebrates the movie’s exuberance at its end depicts the soaring of the spirit that affects the movie throughout. The exuberance is catching on the way through. The whole nation hangs on Jamal’s answer to the final question and the outcome of the phone call to his brother, which brings Latika, the love of his life, unexpectedly onto the phone line. The nation has become besotted with trying to understand why someone who doesn’t want the money, wants so desperately to win. The answer is Latika.
The acting in the film is uniformly excellent. Jamal is a wondrous find. Kapoor is just right as the manipulative host of the game show, who wants Jamal to pull out, and Irrfan Khan plays his role well as the Police Inspector whose suspicions gradually turn to understanding as he learns more about Jamal’s background and comes to appreciate the meaning of Jamal’s experiences as a child, scavenging to survive on the streets of Mumbai. His belief in Jamal is the reason he lets him go back onto the game show to answer the final question. Ultimately, the film is a fairy tale with an ending that shows it is possible for a slum child to win a fortune. It is about fulfilment and dreaming rather than about harshness and reality. It is about ill-fated romancing that has a happy ending, despite the awfulness of what has gone before. The final scenes of the poor in India, wanting Jamal to win what they haven’t got, are very moving and make for penetrating social comment.
This is Boyle’s movie, and he brings to it tremendous energy and style. Boyle brought a similar style to his sci-fi movie, “Sunshine,” and in this film he extends his vigour further, while providing us at the same time with overarching optimism and searing depiction of the bleakness and violence of street life in India. Combining darkness, squalour and romance, this movie has an infectious idealism about it, which blends together humanity and dignity with much sadness and pain. It is one of the great releases of 2008.
Village Out 26th December
Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.