Slumdog Millionaire is an exhilarating ride – a feel-good yarn about a Mumbai street kid directed by Danny Boyle with a wild energy that makes even Trainspotting (Boyle's calling card) look leaden-footed.
Scripted by Simon Beaufoy (of The Full Monty fame), the film is an adaptation of Vikas Swarup's novel, Q & A. As the story begins, the irrepressible hero Jamal (Dev Patel) is close to winning the top prize in the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? but the producers and police are convinced he must be cheating.
"What the hell can a slum boy possibly know?" they ask as the cops beat him up and torture him in an attempt to make him confess his wrong-doing. It turns out, though, that each question Jamal gets right is linked with his troubled past. Beaufoy's schematic screenplay uses the questions as a way to uncover that past.
Western film-makers and artists working in India are often patronising about a culture they only partly understand. But there is no sermonising here. Instead, aided by Anthony Dod Mantle's frenetic camerawork and immensely lively central performances, Boyle strikes up a ferocious tempo. As in Trainspotting, his approach is carnivalesque. He doesn't ignore the violence and squalor Jamal encounters but rather than allow his characters to wallow in self-pity, he celebrates their resilience.
Jamal's ability to make the best of situations is encapsulated in a tremendous early scene in which we see him as a young boy locked up in a makeshift lavatory when his favourite Bollywood star has come to town. The only way he can get out to meet the star is to crawl through a trench of shit. Like the scene in Trainspotting in which Ewan McGregor disappears headfirst down the lavatory, it is comic, surreal and tells us about the single-mindedness of the protagonist. The filthy, rubbish-strewn slums of Mumbai make a very cinematic backdrop. Without labouring his point, Boyle is able to contrast the extremes of wealth and poverty in modern India. Boyle makes comic capital out of the phenomenon of Indian call centres serving British customers. The Dickensian parallels are self-evident and sometimes a little clumsily drawn. Jamal is a contemporary Indian equivalent of Oliver Twist – the good-hearted kid who maintains his integrity in spite of the situations into which he is thrown. There are even Fagin-like baddies who prey on street kids, maiming or blinding them to make them more effective beggars.
As in Dickens, there is also a sometimes cloying undertow of sentimentality. Jamal's true love is Latika, the pretty girl he met as a child when they shared a shelter in the monsoon. For all the suffering Jamal endures, we're never in much doubt about how the story will end. This is ultimately a wish-fulfilment fantasy. There is brutality too, as Jamal's brother Salim tries to make the grade as a gangster. During the quiz show sequences, Boyle cranks up the tension. Indian star Anil Kapoor makes a memorably narcissistic and two-faced quiz host, smiling disingenuously at Jamal while trying to ensure the contestant loses.
Over the past year, there has been much rhetoric about fostering closer relations between the British and Indian film industries. The two have now approved a co-production treaty. Slumdog Millionaire, which looks a certain hit, suggests that collaborations can be of mutual benefit and it is hard to think of many other recent British movies that have the energy tapped here.