What in the world is Danny Boyle doing making a film in India, after his string of British Isles hits ("Millions," "28 Days Later," "Trainspotting")? I don't know and frankly I'm just glad that he's turned his attention to India. "Slumdog Millionaire" combines the heartbreak of Louis Malle's "Calcutta" and the documentary "Born Into Brothels" with the joie de vivre of a Bollywood musical.
From a novel by the Indian writer Vikas Swarup and with a script by Simon Beaufoy, Boyle has made a picture that captures both the beauty and the beastiality of India today. A young man, Jamal (Dev Patel), a chai wallah (he gets tea for workers at a call center) is a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." How did he get there and how is it he can answer so many questions correctly? The film will show us.
The film takes us back through flashbacks to his life as an orphan in the slums of Bombay. He and his older brother, and another orphan, Latika, a beautiful young girl who grows into a beautiful young woman, are like so many millions of other Indian orphans; they can die like that, or find a way to survive. As we watch them they support each other through some horrendous experiences. But at the same time they have great pluck - and luck - so that what might be a story too depressing to watch becomes a kind of triumph.
They run from one disaster, an almost unwatchable version of the Oliver Twist story, to a witty triumph, where Jamal, seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time, quickly becomes a tourist guide for Europeans and Americans, telling whatever lies he finds convenient. As the tourists take their shoes off, he finds a pair for himself and takes it. Every experience turns into another question at the quiz show as his winnings grow. And every flashback as he grows from childhood to adolescence to adulthood (played by three wonderful non-professional actors) gives us more and more of the flavor, if that's not too mild a word, of both the horror and the wit of his life.
Boyle has found a way to capture both the horror and the glory of India, as seen by a film that veers between one and the Bollywood version of the other. There's even a closing dance over the end credits that will have you swaying in your seat. It's a brave and wonderfully successful film.