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'Slumdog dazzles'

Breathless, exciting story is also exhilarating and heartbreaking.

Posted: January 30, 2009 1:17 p.m.
Updated: January 30, 2009 1:30 p.m.

Dev Patel, left, and Anil Kapoor are shown in a scene from "Slumdog Millionaire." The film is nominated for 10 Oscars, including the coveted Best Picture Oscar. The film has already won numerous awards.

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Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" hits the ground running. This is a breathless, exciting story, somehow heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time, about a Mumbai orphan who rises from literal rags to literal riches, all on the strength of his lively intelligence.

So universal is the film's appeal that it will present a portrait of the real India to millions of moviegoers for the first time.

The real India, supercharged with a plot as reliable and eternal as the hills. The film's surface is so dazzling that you hardly realize how traditional it is underneath. But it's the buried structure that pulls us through the story like a big engine on a short train.

By the real India, I don't mean an unblinking documentary like Louis Malle's "Calcutta" or the recent documentary "Born into Brothels." I mean the real India of social levels that seem to be separated by centuries.

What do many people think of when they think of India? On the one hand, Mother Teresa, "Salaam Bombay!" and the wretched of the Earth. On the other, the Masterpiece Theater-style images of "A Passage to India," "Gandhi" and "The Jewel in the Crown."

The India of Mother Teresa still very much exists. Because it is side by side with the new India, it is easily seen. People living in the streets. A woman crawling from a cardboard box and adjusting her sari. Men bathing themselves at a fire hydrant. Men relieving themselves at the roadside (you never see women doing that - where do they go?).

You stand on one side of the Hooghly River, a branch of the Ganges that runs through Kolkata, and your friend tells you, "On the other bank millions of people live without a single sewer line."

On the other hand, the world's largest middle-class, mostly lower-middle, but all the more admirable.

The India of "Monsoon Wedding." Millionaires. Mercedes Benzes and Audis. Traffic like Demo Derby. Luxurious condos. Comfortable suburbs. Exploding education. A computer segment that supplies the world with programming, researchers and educators. A fountain of medical professionals. So much of the most exciting modern English literature. A Bollywood to rival Hollywood.

"Slumdog Millionaire" bridges these two Indias by cutting between a world of poverty and the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." It tells the story of an orphan from the slums of Mumbai who is born into a brutal early existence. A petty thief, impostor and survivor, mired in the most dire poverty, he improvises his way up through the world and remembers everything he has learned.

His name is Jamal (played as a teenager by Dev Patel). He is Oliver Twist. High-spirited and defiant in the worst of times, he survives. For example, he scrapes out a living at the Taj Mahal, which he did not know about, but discovers by being thrown off a train. How? He pretends to be a guide, invents "facts" out of thin air, advises tourists to remove their shoes and then steals them.

He eventually finds a bit part in the Mumbai underworld, and even falls in idealized romantic love, that most elusive of conditions for a slumdog.

His life until about the age of 20 is told in flashbacks intercut with his appearance as a contestant on the quiz show. Pitched as a slumdog, he supplies the correct answers to question after question and becomes a national hero as the suspense builds.

The flashbacks show why he knows the answers. He doesn't volunteer this information. It is beaten out of him by the show's security staff as he stands poised on the eve of winning the top prize. They are sure he must be cheating.

The film uses dazzling cinematography, breathless editing, driving music and headlong momentum to explode with narrative force, somehow stirring in a romance at the same time.

For Danny Boyle, it is a personal triumph. If you have seen some of his earlier films ("Shallow Grave," "Trainspotting," "28 Days Later," the lovable "Millions"), you know he's a natural. Here he combines the suspense of a game show with the vision and raw energy of "City of God" and never stops sprinting.

When I saw "Slumdog Millionaire" at Toronto, I was witnessing a phenomenon: dramatic proof that a movie is about how it tells itself. I walked out of the theater on the second day of the festival and flatly predicted it would win the Audience Award. Seven days later, it did. And that it was a definite possibility for an Oscar best picture nomination. It is one of those miraculous entertainments that achieves its immediate goals and keeps climbing toward a higher summit.

© 2008 THE EBERT CO.

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