Based on a novel by former Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, the film opens with Jamal (played with terrific chutzpah by newcomer Dev Patel) already in police custody, accused of somehow cheating during his appearance on the local version of Millionaire — which, in a nod to globalization, is all but indistinguishable from its British and American counterparts. Given the third degree by a tough but ultimately decent police inspector (the excellent Irfan Khan) who demands to know how this lowly tea boy (or chai wala) from the slums could possibly know enough to advance to the show's 20-million-rupee final round, Jamal flashes back over the key events of a life that, quite literally, contains all the answers. The violent death of Jamal's mother at the hands of anti-Muslim extremists explains his familiarity with one of the Millionaire questions; a childhood infatuation with Bollywood movie star Amitabh Bachchan yet another; and so on.
The potential for a treacly Good Will Hunting of the Mumbai ghetto abounds, but Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) think more in terms of a minor-scale Dickensian epic (with one major nod to Dumas): As Jamal journeys down memory lane, the crux of Slumdog Millionaire becomes the pull of time and tide on the relationship between Jamal, his artful-dodger brother Salim, and the suitably beautiful, unattainable Latika (Freida Pinto), the lifelong object of Jamal's undying affection. It's Jamal's dream to rescue Latika from her current situation as the semi-willing concubine of a Mumbai underworld heavy — the same one, as it happens, who has Salim on his payroll.
Zigging to and fro, Slumdog Millionaire whips these familiar raw ingredients into a feverish masala, at once touristic and something deeper, that drenches the screen in the sights and sounds of modern Mumbai: Mischievous children scamper through mazes of corrugated-tin rooftops; crowds of washerwomen cleanse extravagantly colored fabrics in outdoor baths; eardrum-rattling traffic chokes the smoggy streets; trains clatter noisily into busy stations. So intent seems Boyle (and his ace cameraman, Anthony Dod Mantle) on cramming as much visual and sonic information as possible into each second of the movie that even the English subtitles (which appear in colored rectangular boxes during the Hindi-language scenes) jostle for position in the already densely packed frames. That sort of hyped-up aesthetic can quickly turn wearying, as it has in several of Boyle's less successful ventures (including Shallow Grave and the duly forgotten A Life Less Ordinary), but here it is a fount of ever-renewable energy. "I am at the center of the center," Salim tells Jamal as they gaze out over the landscape of their former slum, now an oasis of skyward-reaching glass-and-steel towers. And watching Slumdog, you get the sense that, like Shanghai as seen in the films of Jia Zhangke, this former stretch of colonial Britain is changing before our eyes faster than even Boyle's camera can capture it.
A dystopian by nature, whose films regularly move in the direction of entropic chaos, Boyle resists the natural tug of Slumdog Millionaire toward happily-ever-after territory, counterbalancing each of Jamal's triumphs with equal or greater episodes of personal loss and steadfastly refusing the age-old movie wisdom that love conquers all (especially money). Yet it's that very tension between gritty, street-level reality and fairy-tale invention that ultimately makes Slumdog Millionaire feel even more buoyant and life-affirming. Like so many of the Bollywood melodramas it stylistically apes, Boyle's film is unapologetically pop, even as Boyle himself seems to be at once inside and outside the idiom, embracing it while winking slyly at our collective need for escapist fantasy. Then, just when you figure he has pulled out all the stops, Boyle proves to have one more trick left up his sleeve: a joyous musical number that sends everybody out of the theater feeling like a winner.