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Millionaire class

Movies | Slumdog scores as tale of poverty and hope

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

Rudyard Kipling captured Bombay ("Mother of Cities to me") with its purple fruits, shadowy palm-groves, and "gaily dressed Parsees wading out to worship the sunset." Kipling would have been fascinated by today's Mumbai with its international call centers, high-rise apartment buildings, Bollywood trappings among slum-dwelling poverty, and recent terrorist attack. As he captured late 19th-century Bombay on paper, so directors Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan with Slumdog Millionaire memorably show on film the city's 21st-century dynamism.

The title suggests the story: An uneducated 18-year-old from the slums, a chai-wala (tea seller), becomes a record-breaking contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? When police arrest for potential fraud Jamal Malik, the contestant the whole country is watching, on the eve of his final round, he has a simple response to that question: "I know the answers."

Jamal (Dev Patel) knows the answers because with his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and fellow survivalist Latika (Freida Pinto), he has lived them. How to know what the Hindu god Rama is holding in his right hand, except that a Hindu mob torches the Muslim slum where he lives? How to know a song, except that he is forced to sing it for the pimp of the beggars' ring?

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Through the game show's trivia questions unfold profound chapters in the lives of the destitute and orphaned trio. It's a Dickensian tale of survival infused with a Life Is Beautiful ability to see comedy in the midst of tragedy. That, along with the keen eye of British director Boyle (of the also keen but fouler-mouthed Trainspotting) and the casting genius of co-director Tandan, make this movie deserving of every Golden Globe and Oscar nod it gets.

With a limited U.S. release starting two months ago, Slumdog is worth seeking out. And its R rating for "some violence, disturbing images and language" should not keep parents from taking astute younger teens to see an unforgettable portrayal of a city much in the news, its honest depiction of the evil that breeds poverty, and its compassionate portrayal of the children who become its victims and its heroes.


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