Damn. Romantic comedies got dark. Slumdog Millionaire opens on an Indian kid getting tortured by two police inspectors. They beat him, hold him underwater, and then clamp electrodes on his toes. It’s not The Holiday or Made Of Honor. This kid’s getting ‘the business.’ Danny Boyle’s feel-good picture of the year (and it does eventually feel good—my theater applauded) opens like a film about CIA rendition.
Jamal Malik is a slum kid who’s one question away from winning 20 million rupees on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” And since doctors and lawyers haven’t made it as far as the 16 year old, the police have some questions about how a thief and beggar from Mumbai’s biggest ghetto made it so far.
The film jumps back and forth between Malik’s dominance in the hot seat and his miserable upbringing. After his mom is killed in a riot, Malik and his best friend (Anil) scrap in the massive landfills of Mumbai. They meet up with Latika, another orphan, and are eventually kidnapped by a slumlord Tiger (think Fagin from Oliver Twist, if Fagin blinded 6-year olds and made them sing). Malik coordinates an escape, but loses his beloved in the process.
The rest of the movie involves the lad’s thankless jobs, personal beatings, and attempts to find his star-crossed lover. Malik gives pirated tours at the Taj Mahal (“here is the renowned swimming pool…”), bilks fat tourists out of money, and becomes a house servant—all the while tracking down Latika, who is being sold into varying levels of child prostitution.
And it’s a romance. So at some point, you’re watching a kid execute a pimp gangland style, and wondering—where does the heartwarming stuff begin? It takes a while. This is the third world.
RomComs used to be simple stories of upbeat WASPs and the comedy-of-errors that results in their courtship/pregnancy/whatever. Pretty simple formula; a couple white kids fall into love, face a completely surmountable obstacle, but take 90 minutes to overcome it. Why does it take so long? Usually because they grew up rich and can’t cope with normal public-school problems (like changing a tire, installing a laptop, or telling their dads that the golf instructor got them pregnant. Again). But I like the new hard Boyled approach. True love always seems worthwhile after a beating.
And Malik finds his redemption. The actor, Dev Patel, brings a searching honesty to the role. At times it’s overkill. But his wide-eyed earnestness makes for great banter with the game show host—a mousse and diamond earring leisure suit played by Anil Kapoor (who puts the ‘eaze’ in sleazy).
The upbeat ending is kind of a shock after all the stabbings and race riots. And just when that high climaxes, the credits roll—with a Bollywood-style dance number at a train station. You’ll stop mid-Goober, put down your Mr. Pibb and say “What did I just see?”
The bottom line is that there is a reason that this movie has received the critical acclaim that’s been heaped on in the run up to awards season. It’s fast paced, different, and unique. Our recommendation is to SEE IT. 9.5/10