Remember the scene in Trainspotting when Ewan McGregor took a dive into a toilet bowl? Danny Boyle’s come up with something almost as nauseatingly memorable in his latest film – a little boy (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) plunging into a pool of poo in order to extricate himself from a locked Mumbai outhouse.
There hasn’t been anything quite as whiffy on screen since Tim Robbins crawled through a river of shit in The Shawshank Redemption. But in Boyle’s invigorating saga, this early flashback serves as an ideal thumbnail of the resourceful Jamal, an orphan from the slums whose Dickensian ascent through India’s caste-ruled society forms the beating heart of this sprawling, vibrant melodrama.
When we first meet Jamal though, he is an older, 18-year-old teaboy (Skins’ Dev Patel) who has, to the amazement of host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), got all the way to the last question in the subcontinent’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?
Convinced he must be cheating, the devious presenter has him interrogated by inspector Irfan Khan. Facing torture even Jack Bauer would balk at
(do local coppers really electrocute game show entrants?), Jamal tells his story of hardship, tragedy and freakish good fortune that – coincidentally enough – gave him every answer he needed to get one step away from 20m rupees.
There’s something clunkily obvious in the way each episode in the hero’s rite of passage clicks with the sundry multiple-choicers he’s posed. There’s also one sequence involving a Fagin-esque villain who blinds runaways that perhaps belongs in another, more nightmarish movie.
But Jamal’s love for Latika (Freida Pinto) gives us a sturdy through-line as the film jumps from past to present, Hindi to English and docudrama verité to Bollywood-style spectacle.
Braiding Boyle’s thrilling depiction of a teeming, steaming India and writer Simon Beaufoy’s deft mixture of comedy, romance, drama and suspense, Slumdog is a near-total delight.