“Slumdog Millionaire” is a film that exists in the present but focuses on the past, where it explains how its hero developed his own future. It has a funny way of telling his story, calling our attention to various memories while he sees his own destiny unfold. The secret of his life is split between the two of us, leaving the audience to work its way backwards as he moves toward the finish line.
The hero is an 18-year-old from India named Jamal (Dev Patel), who winds up being a contestant on a foreign clone of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Viewers become obsessed with his shot at winning 20 million rupees, which seems like the impossible dream for a poor boy from the streets. He answers all kinds of questions, but they don’t really matter here: This is a movie about process, not payoff. Eventually, we stop caring about what answer he uses and start to focus on how he knows it.
Jamal also has to deal with Prem (Anil Kapoor), the host who smiles gamely when the cameras are on but tells him to quit while he’s ahead during commercials. As if his cocksure eyes and “Hi, I’m the Villain” hairdo weren’t enough, he’s involved in major plot points warning us that he can’t be trusted.
Playing is only half the battle, though. The police suspect Jamal of cheating and take him in, walking through his winning streak step by step on tape. Certain that a boy as poor as Jamal didn’t have money for school, they harass him with questions and abuse in an attempt to whittle him down to a confession. The inspector (Irrfan Khan) leaves no stone unturned, thinking he can catch him in the middle of a lie, but everything Jamal tells him is the truth – he actually talks about the role he played in another crime as an alibi. He’s done playing games.
All of this opens the door to the heart of the story, which goes all the way to Jamal’s earliest years and works its way back to the present. He makes it through some desperate times with his big brother, Salim (played as a young boy by Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail), a hell-raiser who’s too powerful for his own good. They meet a girl named Latika (played as a young girl by Rubina Ali), who inevitably becomes the center of Jamal’s universe. It’s only a matter of time before Salim drives a wedge between them, but who’ll get the last laugh?
You already know the answer, of course, but director Danny Boyle’s goal is to make you understand how the plot unfolds, not who gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop. He has a weird way of viewing the world, shooting with canted angles that illustrate chaos and desperation. More of that happens in “Slumdog Millionaire” than it does in “28 Days Later…,” Boyle’s frightening horror movie about zombies who take over the world. The survivors have the upper hand most of the time (all things considered), which makes its sickening angles ideal for catching the audience off-guard.
The exception becomes the rule in “Slumdog Millionaire,” which employs straight balance every once in awhile to make life look strange and impossible to tame. Jamal’s hardly able to control his own destiny, but then again, who is?