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Slumdog Millionaire

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Slumdog Millionaire: 8 Oscars
Driven by fantastic energy and a torrent of vivid images of India old and new, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a sensation. Danny Boyle’s film uses the dilemma of a poor teenager suspected of cheating on the local version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’’ to tell a story of social mobility that reminds of Dickens in its attention to detail and the extremes of poverty and wealth within a culture.

"Slumdog Millionaire," the little film that overcame tremendous problems simply to earn an American release, won eight Oscars at the 81st annual Academy Awards, including best picture. "Most of all we had passion and we had belief, and our film shows if you have those two things, you have everything," said producer Christian Colson, surrounded by many members of the film's huge cast and crew.

It was a supremely unlikely success story. "Millionaire," which combines elements of Bollywood melodrama and documentary grit, features no stars. It's set largely among the poverty-stricken districts of Mumbai, India, and one-third of the film is in Hindi. Its initially reluctant director, Danny Boyle, is better known for brash British films such as "Trainspotting" and "28 Days Later."

The film's orphaned, poverty-raised hero, played by Dev Patel, overcomes his challenges to earn a spot on the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" -- not necessarily to win money, but to connect with his lost love. On the show, he's told that perhaps he is a figure of destiny.

Surging with colors, music, the ever-present swarming multitudes and the vitality of its youthful characters, the film begins disturbingly with the sight of police torturing a young man to make him confess how he’s been able to make a run up to the ultimate prize of 20 million rupees on the nation’s most popular quiz-show. “I knew the answers,” the sullen fellow insists, and Simon Beaufoy’s intricate and cleverly structured script illustrates how that came to be.

18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) correctly answers the multiple-choice questions posed by “Millionaire” host Prem (Indian superstar Anil Kapoor) in front of a boisterous live studio audience. Flashbacks present the devastatingly difficult but opportunistic childhoods of Jamal and his brother, Salim. Living in Mumbai’s most dirty slum, they lose their mother in a mob attack on Muslims. Forced to look after themselves and live by their wits as they commit petty crimes, the boys make their lives more interesting when they accept a new partner, the adorable Latika.

The street kids learn more smarts from a Fagin-like operator who runs a sort of criminal orphanage in a remote area, sending his charges into the city for dishonest days’ work. When it seems Jamal is about to have his eyes squeezed out to make him a higher-earning beggar, the three make a desperate run for it. The boys manage to jump on a speeding train, but not Latika.

As these and many other stories of tragedy and exhilaration play out, it becomes clear that each one has taught Jamal something that directly leads to his success on “Millionaire.” Boyle tries to show that the most useful intelligence, in all its forms, comes from life experience.

Granted, the two brothers, once into their teens, don’t end up on the same road. In the film’s lightest and most amusing passage, they become self-appointed tour guides at the Taj Mahal, giving visitors funny misinformation and pulling little scams in sequences that effectively present touristic India from the point of view of mischievous local youths. Shortly, however, their criminal enterprises become more serious, forcing them to scram back to Mumbai, where they find Latika in dubious circumstances.

Jamal takes small-time jobs and carries the torch for Latika, while Salim rises in the criminal ranks, and the film’s final stretch provides stunning views of enormous bad-taste skyscrapers rising from the very ground where the boys so insignificantly began their lives. The build-up to Jamal’s climactic appearances on “Millionaire” are milked for all they’re worth, as the entire country hangs on his every answer.

The tough look at poverty and crime at all levels of society shoves the occasional coincidences and questionable plot developments firmly to the side, and the rush Boyle manifestly got from shooting such an intense story on these locations is fully felt in the film. The logistic considerations alone must have been mind-boggling, as a majority of scenes include what seem like hundreds of bystanders. Anthony Dod Mantle’s camera is often on the prowl or the run, and it sometimes dashes through jammed streets and shantytown alleys at the speed of the sprinting kids themselves. The images are stunning, and Chris Dickens’ editing is breathless without being exhausting.

Mostly non professional kids in the main roles, showing the principals at different ages, are entirely credible. Kapoor is perfect as the boastful, melodramatic and devious gameshow-host. As drama and as a look at a country increasingly entering the world spotlight, “Slumdog Millionaire” is a vital piece of work by an outsider who’s clearly connected with the place. Musical elements provide a major kick, as does a rousing and unexpected end-credits dance number at a train station.

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