Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" is the story of a young man's journey from rags to riches, by way of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

Share story

“Why does everyone love this program?” a young man asks, as “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” blares from a nearby television.

“It’s a chance to escape, to walk into another life,” his companion tells him.

That young man does indeed escape in Danny Boyle’s gritty, enchanting “Slumdog Millionaire,” a rags-to-riches fairy tale beginning in the slums of Mumbai and ending on the glittery India set of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” (whose Hindi-speaking host, resplendent in a sparkling suit, occasionally does a little dance after a question is correctly answered).

Jamal (newcomer Dev Patel) is an orphaned boy who grows up on the streets, begging, stealing and scraping his way to young adulthood. Now 18, he’s on television partly as a way of seeking connection with two people he lost along the way: his only brother Salim (Madhur Mittal), and the beautiful girl he loves, Latika (Freida Pinto). And he’s being accused of cheating, because nothing in Jamal’s life has come easily.

Written by Simon Beaufoy (“The Full Monty”), “Slumdog Millionaire” takes its structure from the game show at its center: Each question, miraculously, seems to touch off an event from Jamal’s brief, troubled history, spinning us into a flashback that fills in a piece of the puzzle. The movie pulses with life: The subtitles (the movie’s mostly in English, but includes some Hindi) float around the screen, like text messages running rampant; the familiar, throbbing “Millionaire” music seems to echo Jamal’s heartbeat.

Boyle, whose career has easily veered from sweet children’s stories (“Millions”) to futuristic horror (“28 Days Later”), turns “Slumdog” into an intoxicating mix of genres: comedy, drama, suspense, even Bollywood-style musical. (The movie ends with a joyous musical number that could well cause dancing at the multiplexes.) Though it’s ultimately sweet as honey, there are moments of jolting darkness: A scene involving men who lead a ring of trained child beggars is brutally upsetting, and Jamal’s life, in movie fashion, has more than its share of trauma.

And yet, Boyle and Beaufoy find a way to unite an audience a world away, as this “slumdog” with the big ears and the frightened eyes finds a way to overcome his past. All over India, we see, people watch “Millionaire”; just as all over North America, you can imagine audiences flocking to this film. Jamal, a young man of poor fortune and great resourcefulness (listen to him fake a Scottish accent at the call center where he works), is the classic underdog; we root for him and rejoice with him. The little boy we saw racing through the garbage-filled slums at the movie’s earliest flashbacks has become a man — and one of the year’s most appealing heroes.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com