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(2008) (Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal) (R)

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Drama: As a young man prepares to answer the last question on India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" he must answer allegations of him cheating by proving that his life experiences, including growing up in the slums as an orphan, have provided him with the knowledge necessary to answer the questions.
18-year-old Jamal Malik (DEV PATEL) is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" a far cry from growing up as an orphan in Mumbai's slums. Yet, that very past has cast doubts on his ability to know the answers, resulting in him being interrogated by the Inspector (IRRFAN KHAN) and his brutal goon who want to beat a confession of cheating.

Jamal won't budge, however, and as the Inspector plays back questions posed by the show's host, Prem (ANIL KAPOOR), the young man recounts his past life experiences that ultimately lead to his knowledge of the answers. We then flashback to when young Jamal (AYUSH MAHESH KHEDEKAR) and his slightly older brother, Salim (AZHARUDDIN MOHAMMED ISMAIL), end up orphaned during a massacre of Muslims, including the murder of their mother.

They eventually befriend another orphan, Latika (RUBINA ALI), and then end up in an orphanage run by Maman (ANKUR VIKAL), a brutal man who employs various kids as panhandlers. The brothers manage to escape, ending up at the Taj Mahal where they grow up into young teenagers, Jamal (TANAY HEMANT CHHEDA) and Salim (ASHUTOSH LOBO GAJIWALA), living off the streets and hustling tourists. Feeling badly that Latika didn't escape with them, Jamal convinces his brother to return to Mumbai to rescue Latika (TANVI GANESH LONKAR), but even that eventually goes amiss.

Years later, Jamal works at a call center and wonders whatever happened to Latika (FREIDA PINTO) and Salim (MADHUR MITTAL), discovering that they're now involved in different ways with Javed (MAHESH MANJREKAR), a local, powerful crime boss. As Jamal tries once more to rescue her, the story goes back and forth between the past and present where the 18-year-old tries to prove his innocence to get back to the show and its last question.

OUR TAKE: 8.5 out of 10
Just as most games are played for fun and/or escapism from day-to-day drudgeries, the watching of game shows on TV is done for the same reason, albeit in a surrogate fashion. Of course, for those who actually participate on such programs, the escapism often comes more in the form of wishful financial freedom from one's debts.

That's true for Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young man who grew up in the slums of Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay). Orphaned at a young age, he ended up living and hustling on the streets with his older brother, living a seemingly insignificant life of squalor and one that appeared headed nowhere but toward a dead end. And yet here he is, one question away from winning India's version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?"

His unlikely success, however, has lead some to believe he's cheating, a charge that results in some brutal interrogation for a confession. Even so, the lad is unwavering, mostly due to what he's experienced in his life, points brought up in his explanations regarding how he knew the answers to the show's various questions.

That's the unique setup for "Slumdog Millionaire," an intensely captivating, harrowing, moving and ultimately uplifting and completely satisfying Dickensian tale that's something of the sort of movie "The Kite Runner" wanted to be. In short, it's unlike most anything you've seen in the movies in quite a while and is one of the best offerings of 2008.

Working from screenwriter Simon Beaufoy's adaptation of Vikas Swarup's novel "Q&A," director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "28 Days Later") and Indian co-director Loveleeen Tandan have obviously been inspired by the works of Charles Dickens and deliver an updated and transplanted tale of youthful woe and pluck that's arguably Boyle's best work and would likely make the 19th century British novelist proud.

From the nonlinear storytelling to the casting of and performances by relative unknowns as the kids through various ages, the fun and quirky soundtrack and Boyle's signature flashy visuals, the film is a rush from start to finish, as it easily grabs the viewer's attention and makes one care about its protagonist and his quest.

And that all stems from his initially platonic and eventually romantic relationship with Latika (played as a kid, young teen and young adult by Rubina Ali, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar and Freida Pinto respectively). Jamal (also played by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar and Tanay Hemant Chheda) repeatedly saves her over the various years (from being an orphan out in the rain, a Fagan-like child abuser, and a crime boss), only to keep having her snatched away from him.

Paralleling that is Jamal's relationship with his older brother (Madhur Mittal, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiala and Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail through the years) who ends up heading down a decidedly different path than his sibling and behaves treacherously toward him in various ways, yet always manages to come through for him when needed. That unlikely and uncertain devotion, along with Jamal's steadfast desire to rescue and be with Latika are what give the film real depth and an emotionally satisfying core.

If there's one element that initially appears could become tiresome, but thankfully manages to avoid that, it's the overall storytelling approach. In short, while Jamal is being interrogated by an inspector (Irrfan Khan), we see a replay of a question asked of the contestant by the show's flamboyant host (Anil Kapoor). The young man then proceeds to tell a tale from his past that ultimately explains how he came to know the answers.

I worried that the back and forth framing device was going to wear out its welcome due to its repetitive nature, but the flashback tales -- individually and collectively -- are so engrossing, the characters so engaging, and the direction so superb that one ultimately doesn't mind the structure.

In fact, it works so well that viewers will likely be completely wrapped up in rooting for the protagonist to win, not just the game show, but also his lifelong quest to be with Latika. It's so masterfully told that it ends up paralleling the initial "Rocky" in that it doesn't really matter if he answers the last question correctly as long as he gets the girl.

Operating on a number of levels, all of which work terrifically, "Slumdog Millionaire" is a superb piece of filmmaking that reassures viewers -- usually bombarded with mediocre to horrific cinematic offerings -- that movies can still surprise, enthuse and completely capture one's heart and mind. It's a must-see and rates as an 8.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 3, 2008 / Posted November 14, 2008

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