East meets West in brilliant ‘Millionaire’

Jamal Malik, played by Dev Patel, is a young man who knows too much. After coming close to winning the grand prize on the Indian equivalent of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” he is taken in for questioning for possibly cheating. The police use brutal means to find the source of his answers because a “slumdog” shouldn’t know enough to set him apart from the usual doctors and lawyers that appear on the show.

Wrong. The answers lie in his experiences. When the questions trigger powerful memories in which the answers can be found, Jamal’s journey and his ties to his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and childhood friend Latika (Frieda Pinto) come into focus. Growing up at the mercy of the slums and its thugs and criminals, the three have to put their heads together to make ends meet, but Salim’s survival-of-the-fittest mindset eventually puts him at odds with the more sentimental Jamal.

The cinematography can go from flashy techniques to no-frills handheld filmmaking in a second, and the fast-paced cutting keeps you at the edge of your seat. The music combines traditional Eastern music with Western hip-hop flourishes, providing the pulsing heartbeat for the film, Jamal and his city of Mumbai. The diverging styles of East and West are constantly at play in “Slumdog Millionaire,” an uplifting film that transcends borders.

The city of Mumbai is a character in itself. Considered the financial heart of India, Mumbai, with its shantytowns to its high-rise skyscrapers is constantly reinventing itself, much like Jamal and director Danny Boyle to some degree.

The versatile Boyle burst onto the scene with the 1995 neo-noir thriller “Shallow Grave” teaming up with Ewan McGregor, who would accompany him for his next breakthrough hit “Trainspotting.”

Since then, Boyle has made detours into horror with the impressive “28 Days Later” and even children’s film with the surprising sweet and spiritual “Millions,” a tale similar to “Millionaire” in terms of themes. Both films look at how money can change a person and in the end focus on what’s really important.

Based on the book “Q and A” by Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup, the film has been at the center of some controversy for its dire portrayal of the slums that pock-mark the ever changing face of Mumbai. Some decry the film’s love story for being unrealistic. Some have even objected to the title of the film, claiming that “slumdog” is a negative term unfit for the film’s title. These critics are missing the bigger picture, focusing on petty details without looking at the sum of Jamal’s experience in a country that’s seeing the impact of Western culture.

The film has also been called a “masala film,” a label for Indian films that combine romance, adventure, drama and comedy all into one like the diverse blend of spices that it’s named after. This label can be embraced or avoided like a curse, but the film pulls off the combination without making me question for a moment the authenticity of Jamal’s experiences, the pain he’s been through and his hope for a brighter future.

Kudos to co-director Loveleen Tandan for helping that sense of authenticity. She was cruelly snubbed at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards when only Boyle was nominated for best director.