Recently, in the news, a terrorist attack of a hotel in Mumbai, India, revealed the inadequacy of India's security forces. In an indirect way, this movie by British filmmaker Danny Boyle does the same.
Based on the novel by Vikas Swarup, the story focuses on an Indian orphan named Jamal who is a contestant on India's version of the TV game show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. This is just a framing device. The true story centers on the disturbing, criminal elements that exist in and around the slums of Mumbai.
What happens is that Jamal miraculously is able to answer all the game show's questions correctly. It's so miraculous that the Indian police accuse him of cheating. Therefore, the police apprehend Jamal and interrogate like he's in Guantanamo Bay.
Through flashbacks, Jamal tells his life story leading up to the moment when he decides to become a contestant. We learn that his life story is riddled with coincidental moments that happen to give him the exact answers for every single question of the half-dozen or so that he's asked on the show.
Being that the questions on the show aren't like the ones on Jeopardy, this isn't difficult to realize. The questions on the show aren't academic or highly intelligent. They're mostly pop culture questions that, based on one's experience, anybody could know.
We discover that Jamal's experience was one that was rife with poverty and constant encounters with the criminal element. From anti-Muslim violence to kidnapping to drugs to gangs to murder, Jamal sees it all. What's really miraculous is that Jamal somehow survives it all intact. What drives him obviously is a deep-seated love he has, both for his older brother and only sibling, as well as his fellow orphan girlfriend, a beautiful young woman named Latika.
Jamal spends most of the movie chasing after Latika. It may have been the theater I was in, but every single chase scene, of which there were many, was way too loud. I loved hearing the music of the Grammy-nominated song "Paper Planes" by M.I.A., but the cinematography and editing of each was so frenetic and crazy as to be dizzying and almost seizure inducing.
But, the plot goes like this. Jamal and Latika find each other. Then, they lose each other. They find each other. Then they lose each other. They find each other. They lose each other. It goes on and on, and after the third or fourth time, it gets annoying and frustrating.
In contrast to the other things in the film, I'd also describe it as ridiculous. Jamal is accused of cheating on the game show and how the police deal with it is by stripping him of his clothes, hanging him by his wrists, beating and eventually electro-shocking him.
He's a game show contestant, not an Al Qaeda operative. Why the Abu Ghraib treatment? In light of the fact that you have rampant violence, drug dealing and prostitution, in addition to terrorism to handle, doesn't the police's treatment of Jamal sound a little ridiculous if not way over-the-top?
What is also ridiculous is Jamal's seemingly perfect, photographic memory. It appears that Jamal is constantly running from one dangerous situation to another. Yet, somehow, he can recall the minutest details that occur in the background of his troubled and tortured life, while on the hot seat of a national game show.
It may be possible, but it all feels unbelievable. What doesn't feel unbelievable is the harsh light Boyle shines on life in India's slums. It's a contrast to the economic shift due to outsourcing, but, whatever illusion anyone had about that country, this film might change. It's for the most part not pretty.
It's an odd contradiction because most Bollywood or Bollywood-inspired films are much prettier. No question! The lead actors are very young and good-looking, but the story is rough.
Irfan Khan who plays one of the police interrogators gives a less than impressive performance than he did in his standout role in The Namesake (2006).
Without giving it away, there's a twist at the end that was very interesting, but it's swept under the rug to give way for a dance number. I wished the film had been more about that twist and correlating it to the disparity of wealth and corruption in the country. Instead, we get an overblown love story.
Three Stars out of Five
Rated R for disturbing images and language
Running Time: 2 hrs.