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By SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE PLUCKS THE HEARTSTRINGS, COAXING LAUGHTER AND SOBS OUT OF SWEET, SOUR AND FALSE NOTES MANOHLA DARGIS (NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE)
  • Published 24.01.09
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A gaudy, gorgeous rush of colour, sound and motion, Slumdog Millionaire, the latest from the British shape-shifter Danny Boyle, doesn’t travel through the lower depths, it giddily bounces from one horror to the next. A modern fairytale about a pauper angling to become a prince, this sensory blowout largely takes place amid the squalor of Mumbai, where lost children and dogs sift through trash so fetid you swear you can smell the discarded mango as well as its peel, or could if the film weren’t already hurtling through another picturesque gutter.

Boyle, who first stormed the British movie scene in the mid-1990s with flashy entertainments like Shallow Grave and Trainspotting, has a flair for the outré. Few other directors could turn a heroin addict rummaging inside a rank toilet bowl into a surrealistic underwater reverie, as he does in Trainspotting, and fewer still could do so while holding onto the character’s basic humanity. The addict, played by Ewan McGregor, emerges from his repulsive splish-splashing with a near-beatific smile (having successfully retrieved some pills), a terrible if darkly funny image that turns out to have been representative not just of Boyle’s bent humour but also of his worldview: better to swim than to sink.

Swimming comes naturally to Jamal (the British actor Dev Patel in his feature-film debut), who earns a living as a chai-wallah serving fragrant tea to call-centre workers in Mumbai and who, after a series of alternating exhilarating and unnerving adventures, has landed in the hot seat on the television game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Yet while the story opens with Jamal on the verge of grabbing the big prize, Simon Beaufoy’s cleverly kinked screenplay, adapted from a novel by Vikas Swarup, embraces a fluid view of time and space, effortlessly shuttling between the young contestant’s past and his present, his childhood spaces and grown-up times. Here, narrative doesn’t begin and end: it flows and eddies — just like life.

By all rights the texture of Jamal’s life should have been brutally coarsened by tragedy and poverty by the time he makes a grab for the television jackpot. But because Slumdog Millionaire is self-consciously (perhaps commercially) framed as a contemporary fairy tale cum love story, or because Boyle leans toward the sanguine, this proves to be one of the most upbeat stories about living in hell imaginable.

It’s a life that begins in a vast, vibrant, sun-soaked, jampacked ghetto, a kaleidoscopic city of flimsy shacks and struggling humanity and takes an abrupt, cruel turn when Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar), then an exuberant 7, and his cagier brother, Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail), witness the murder of their mother (Sanchita Choudhary) by marauding fanatics armed with anti-Muslim epithets and clubs.

Cast into the larger, uncaring world along with another new orphan, a shy beauty named Latika (Rubina Ali plays the child, Freida Pinto the teenager), the three children make their way from one refuge to another before falling prey to a villain whose exploitation pushes the story to the edge of the unspeakable.

Although there’s something undeniably fascinating, or at least watchable, about this ghastly interlude — the young actors are very appealing and sympathetic, and the images are invariably pleasing even when they shouldn’t be — it’s unsettling to watch these young characters and, by extension, the young nonprofessionals playing them enact such a pantomime. It doesn’t help even if you remember that Jamal makes it out alive long enough to have his 15 televised minutes.

It’s hard to hold onto any reservations in the face of Boyle’s resolutely upbeat pitch and seductive visual style. Beautifully shot with great sensitivity to colour by the cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantel, in both film and digital video, Slumdog Millionaire makes for a better viewing experience than it does for a reflective one.

It’s an undeniably attractive package, a seamless mixture of thrills and tears, armchair tourism (the Taj Mahal makes a guest appearance during a sprightly interlude) and crackerjack professionalism. Both the reliably great Irrfan Khan (A Mighty Heart), as a sadistic detective, and the Bollywood star Anil Kapoor, as the preening game-show host, run circles around the young Patel, an agreeable enough if vague centrepiece to all this coordinated, insistently happy chaos.

In the end, what gives me reluctant pause about this bright, cheery, hard-to-resist movie is that its joyfulness feels more like a filmmaker’s calculation than an honest cry from the heart about the human spirit (or, better yet, a moral tale).

In the past Boyle has managed to wring giggles out of murder (Shallow Grave) and addiction (Trainspotting), and invest even the apocalypse with a certain joie de vivre (the excellent zombie flick 28 Days Later). He’s a blithely glib entertainer who can dazzle you with technique and, on occasion, blindside you with emotion, as he does in his underrated children’s movie, Millions.

He plucked my heartstrings in Slumdog Millionaire with well-practised dexterity, coaxing laughter and sobs out of each sweet, sour and false note.

Did you like/not like Slumdog Millionaire? Tell t2@abpmail.com