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.
Kumar, in a fit of pique, has local police officers headed by Irrfan Khan torture the young man. How, they want to know, pounding and electrocuting him as they interrogate him, can an upstart like him possibly know the answers to the TV show's questions?
And so, in a piece of plotting both nimble and schematic, one that involves lots of dramatic flashbacks, Malik reveals to the officers the train of events by which he amassed all sorts of facts.
He can answer a question about film actor Amitabh Bachchan because when he was younger he had dived into a public latrine in order to get the Bollywood legend's autograph. He can answer a question about a gun inventor because he'd heard the name "Colt" mentioned as he was helping his brother Salim to rescue fellow orphan Latika from the clutches of brutal pimps.
A fragmented biography emerges: he's a shanty-town urchin, born to a mother who's later slaughtered in an anti-Muslim pogrom, and forced to hustle a living that takes him on adventures both abysmal and exciting through a society that is becoming flashier and more urban as time goes by.
The narrative structure of Slumdog Millionaire is perfect for a restless director like Boyle, allowing him to fast-forward between dramatic episodes at will, and freeing him from the need to dwell too intimately on the finer shades of characters' personalities.
He's always been a moviemaker keener to play with form and tweak with tempo than to explore the complexities of human psychology. Yet the film, which for all its breathless intensity rarely subverts our expectations, and which in its final section sticks closely to the conventions of modern action drama, never fails to grip or to delight.
It's easy to sense the excitement that Boyle – and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle – felt when shooting in Mumbai. They're alive to the jagged rhythms of the city, its palette of colours that are quite as rich and surreal as any in Trainspotting.
The metropolis, at once deranged, grotesque and magical, embodies all of Boyle's signature motifs – the amorality of Shallow Grave, the mob mayhem of 28 Days Later, the enchanted child's perspective of Millions – and renders them even more vivid.
As such, Slumdog Millionaire strikes me as a hugely important film in contemporary cinema. It's an advertisement for the dramatic potential of the non-Western city. Mumbai, Chennai, Shanghai, Lagos: they, not New York or Los Angeles, over-familiar and culturally declining cities both, are where any writers and directors should be heading today. They offer more energy, extremity, humanity – fillips to the imagination.
Sure, there are risks involved for those who elect to make that kind of creative migration. These days any film set in a poor or developing nation will attract scrutiny.
What we now call the Third World was patronised or ignored by moviemakers for much of the 20th century; it's no bad thing if their successors are forced to think more deeply about what they're doing.
Especially when, following the success of City of God, a cinematic sub-genre – let's call it ghetto picturesque – has developed so that, in films like the (marvellous) Bourne Ultimatum, poor neighbourhoods full of veiled women, market stalls and bearded elders feature as little more than gritty wallpaper, edgy backdrops across which hurtle maverick agents and secret-service free runners.
I've heard it said that Slumdog Millionaire itself is patronising, that it doesn't say enough about imperialism, that it prettifies suffering and poverty. To which I can only say: nonsense.
Boyle is not a political director, but his film is incalculably more radical than the glossy, blinged-out pictures that emerge every week from the studios of Mumbai. His screenwriter is Simon Beaufoy, best known for The Full Monty, also a portrait of economically ravaged underdogs trying to make a life for themselves.
Their collaboration here is a tricked-out, kinetic throwback to the crowd-pleasing, emotionally intense social dramas that India excelled at during the Fifties and Sixties, epic sagas in which young men, impelled by a hunger for justice and believing in a better future for their nation, fought against local gossips, corrupt moneylenders and predatory landlords.
Indian directors rarely make those movies these days; good on Boyle for trying to do so.
The film wouldn't be half as moving were it not for Dev Patel. He's a little hesitant and muted at first, but refines a melancholic heroism that soon becomes very winning.
We feel like whooping as his character rides on top of railway carriages, escapes from Dickensian villains about to blind young children in order to boost their begging potential, risks everything to win the love of his beloved Latika (Freida Pinto).
Slumdog Millionaire is as acerbic as it is clear-eyed about the brutal power dynamics in modern-day Mumbai. But, at the same time, what makes it so warming and what has been inspiring audiences all across the world to cheer at its rousing ending, is its passion for a place that writer Suketu Mehta has described as a "maximum city".
Mumbai has been through hell recently. But Slumdog Millionaire, whose everyman hero is a Muslim, is a wonderful tribute to it and to its people. It is, in fact, a maximum film.