Slumdog Millionaire: Danny Boyle’s Eccentric Feature

“Slumdog Millionaire” is not only Danny Boyle’s most exciting and exuberant work since “Trainspotting,” a decade ago, it also promises to become the “movie event” of the season, though not in the usual box-office way.

For once, the buzz about the over-hyped movie is right. Bearing Boyle’s distinctive sensibility and style, “Slumdog Millionaire” is not only an accomplished film on any level, it also offers many different pleasures, achieved with some manipulation but sans condescending to its East or West audience.

Without much publicity, the film world-premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, then played at Toronto Fest, in both occasions to great critical acclaim. Just before these festivals, Warner sold the picture to Fox Searchlight, reportedly because the studio has too many releases to handle this year.

Lucky Fox Searchlight: With the right handling and marketing, the aptly titled “Slumdog Millionaire” could do marvels at the box-office, generating thrills and frills and also talks among viewers in ways that most movies do not so much anymore.

Director Danny Boyle collaborates for the first time with screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, who’s also known as the scribe of “The Full Monty,” a box-office hit that was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1997. Chnage of authors proves beneficial for this sharply-written saga that pays equal attention to plot, characters, and locale.

In the past, Boyle has worked with writer John Hodge on the exhilarating drug-infused “Trainspotting,” which was nominated for the Screenplay Oscar and has become a cult item on DVD, as well as on his bravura feature debut, “Shallow Grave,” and the less impressive “A Life Less Ordinary.” Frank Cottrell Boyce wrote he highly touching child saga “Millions,” as well as the zombie horror flick “28 Days Later” (released by Fox Searchlight to great success).

Set in Mumbai, “Slumdog Millionaire” was adapted to the big screen from Vikas Swarup’s highly respected novel “Q & A,” which I have not read yet. But here is a movie that’s not so much about the story or plot as about the storytelling and directorial approach.

Unlike other British and American directors, most recently Wes Anderson and his disappointing feature “Darjeeling Limited,” who goes overseas to shoot their picture, but impose on the new landscape their restrictive paradigms, ethnocentric humor, and idiosyncratic visual style, Boyle and collaborators benefit immensely from the new locale, and not just in color and ambience; the characters are grounded and feel right.

You could say that Boyle’s film combines various narrative traditions: East and West, Bollywood and Hollywood, “Oliver Twist” and other classic working class sagas about poor children, star-crossed dramas with music, like Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 debut “Strictly Ballroom,” and thrilling adventures like “The Three Musketeers.” However, the end result is not a patchwork of a movie, as you might expect, but one that’s unified by Boyle’s unique vision and his trademark visual, sound and musical flourishes, energizing a narrative that in the hands of another helmer could have been routine.

Subtitled in Hindi, the story centers on a poor but plucky and industrious Muslim boy named Jamal (played by Dev Patel as a young man), who gets a shot at becoming a millionaire on an Indian TV quiz show that’s at once lurid, garish, and exciting. Boyles is good at delineating the paradoxes of Western culture when it infiltrates Third world countries such as India or Africa.

The story unfolds as a picaresque adventure of Jamal and his older sibling, Salim, both products (but not victims) of the lower socioeconomic echelon, whose mother had died. Struggling just to survive, Jamal decides to appear on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and his winning streak gets him real close to the top prize, an estimable 25 million rupees.

A romantic, in many ways innocent, Jamal is not motivated by money (or greed) but love, wishing to win back the heart of Latika (Freida Pinto), the beautiful girl whom he had known as a boy but had since disappeared.

Unlike “Darjeeling Limited, “Slumdog Millionaire” is richly dense in ethnographic detail without appearing the least anthropological or national geographic-like. You could say that Boyle shapes the indigenous locale, both physical and cultural, with his own spectacular fantasy, in which the distinctions between high culture and low culture, American and Indian media and pop culture are maintained but do not present major cultural obstacles or political tensions.

Boyle and his peers, including Indian co-helmer Loveleen Tandan, have made an essentially crowd-pleasing fantasy (and phantasmagoria) that’s effective as a romantic tale, realistic enough as a depiction of poverty and social injustice, and a poignant chronicle about the huge, global impact of the mass media (read American) and the obsession, madness, and opportunities that come along with it, signaling why such TV programs as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” “American Idol,” “Wheel of Fortune” and other “frivolous” and “mindless” shows prove intoxicating to dwellers of the Third World. (In a future essay, I’ll analyze the film by applying to it a more overtly Marxist political- ideological approach).

I can’t wait to see again “Slumdog Millionaire,” which will open theatrically later this fall, but for now, these are my first thoughts about the new picture by Boyle, whose recent work (“Sunshine”) has been disappointing to me.