Like its title character, this film has had highly improbable success, ending up with the Best Picture Oscar for 2008. The title character is Jamal (Dev Patel) a “slumdog” orphan child who grew up in the streets of Mumbai and works as a “chai wallah,” delivering drinks to the workers at a call center. When he manages to be not only a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” but manages to answer the questions correctly, everyone thinks he must be cheating. He has had no education and seen very little of the world. How could he know all the answers?
As it does in every country, it starts off with the easy ones. Who was the star of “Zanjeer?” You might as well ask an American child who was in “High School Musical,” that is if “High School Musical” or “Hannah Montana” starred some star who was a combination of Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brothers, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jordan. What is interesting there is not that Jamal knows the answer but how important that answer is to him. As we find out how much the star of that film meant to Jamal as a child (played by Ayush Mahesh Khedekar), we learn about his sense of integrity and capacity for devotion. And then we go back to the show, and each question and answer leads us to another story from Jamal’s life.
After their mother is killed by anti-Muslim fanatics, Jamal, his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and his friend Latika (Freida Pinto) go on the run to stay safe. They are befriended by a man who turns out to be a heartless exploiter of children, turning them into beggars and prostitutes and subjecting them to the most horrific abuse imaginable. Jamal and Salim escape, but Latika is left behind.
For a while, Salim and Jamal make a living leading tourists through the Taj Mahal, making up “facts” about its history, something of a counterpoint to the “facts” he is able to draw later as a contestant on for the show. But the man they escaped from is still after them. And Jamal never gives up on finding Latika again.
The contrast between the fairy tale element of the story and the heart-wrenching harshness of Jamal’s circumstances make the environment as vivid and central a character as any human in the story. The music, the textures, the intensity of images and colors, the juxtaposition of the bleakest poverty and the most brutal cruelty with the most tender but enduring feelings of love and hope are what make this film feel like a triumph of joy over despair.