Good luck pinning Danny Boyle down. The director of such wildly divergent films as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions and Sunshine chews through genres the way some actors chew through scenery. Yet in each, Boyle leaves his utterly distinctive signature. It is a hybridization containing equal measures darkness and light. His fables often depict relentless despair that gives way to something beautiful and transcendent just when the viewer cannot take a moment's more gloom. No matter how wretched Boyle's situations, hope is, at all times, just a frame away.
Slumdog Millionaire is something new yet again. While it certainly contains passages of harrowing bleakness, Boyle does not wait until the very end to parcel out hope. It flits into view throughout, buoyant and luminous. It threads its way though the narrative, never letting the viewer forget that it is there. And when it decides to show itself entire, its revelation can only be encompassed in the jubilant, phantasmagoric expression that is Bollywood.
Slumdog Millionaire opens with a pair of policemen brutally interrogating a young man, using torture to coax him to talk. So far it's not working. Convinced the boy in their custody is a criminal, one of the men asks the other how a kid from the slums can make 20 million rupees (about $400,000 U.S.) on a game show without cheating. "I knew the answers," the young man responds wearily. With those words, Slumdog Millionaire bounces back in time, cleverly showing us exactly how Jamal Malik, an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, came to find himself on the cusp of a fortune.
Jamal (played by Dev Patel as a young man and, as with the other leads, two other actors at various stages of childhood) is a product of squalor, of homes built on and out of the refuse discarded from the rest of society. When Jamal's mother is murdered during an anti-Muslim raid, he and older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) are forced to fend for themselves.
They survive on hook, crook and sheer resourcefulness, taking in another orphan teen girl, Latika (Freida Pinto), with whom Jamal is instantly smitten. Eventually they are picked up by a Fagin-esque hustler who runs a sort of criminal orphanage. Each day the lost boys and girls beg for money in the city to bring back to their "benefactor." When Salim discovers the danger they are in, he and Jamal flee, leaving Latika behind.
As the years pass, Jamal takes odd jobs to survive, some of them honest, some of them not. Salim turns to increasingly violent crime to fill his belly. The brothers are a study in contrastsone does what he needs to survive yet stubbornly holds onto his soul, while the other gladly trades his soul in, ecstatic at the street price it brings.
Desperate to reconnect with Latika, Jamal insists they return to Mumbai and begin searching for her. Though the brothers eventually find her in the most hopeless of situations, one in which she is bought and sold like so much chattel, Jamal never loses hope that they will one day be together again.