Slumdog Millionaire opens Friday in select theaters

In his travel narrative Following the Equator, Mark Twain wrote, “India has two million gods, and worships them all. In religion, all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire.”

Some may regard the theatrical release of the Mumbai-set Slumdog Millionaire as poorly timed in light of the bloody terrorist attacks that recently struck India’s most populous city. In truth, current events bring to the forefront the religious and cultural strife that has long plagued the country, one of the many undercurrents running throughout director Danny Boyle’s masterful cinematic masala. Blending historical perspective, grim reality, whimsy, crime drama and starry-eyed romance, Boyle crafts a character-driven, postmodern Dickensian tale of epic proportions.

Slumdog Millionaire depicts an India teetering uneasily between the old and the new, an amalgam of traditional religious values and Western economic and cultural influences. The film’s premisean 18-year-old Muslim and former street orphan competing on a Hindi version of the American game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?encapsulates this conflict. Indeed, the very name of the show could serve as the mantra for today’s generation of young Indians weaned (like Americans) on a diet of capitalism and materialism.

The film’s opening scene shows the game-show contestant, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), being tortured and interrogated by police suspicious that he has cheated his way to the final question and a chance to win 20 million rupees. The script by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q and A, flashes back upon Jamal’s life, from his hardscrabble upbringing in Mumbai’s slums to his single-minded goal to win the heart of his lifelong love, Latika (Freida Pinto). Jamal explains to skeptical investigators how the 12 questions he has already correctly answered relate to events in his past, many of which coincide with India’s own history and modern-day development. A question about what weapon Hindu god Lord Rama holds in his hand recalls a Hindu mob’s raid on the Muslim slums where Jamal lived as a child, during which Jamal’s mother was slain. Jamal finds the answer to a geography question about London in the mock street signs adorning the call center where he works as a chaiwalla (tea server), a derisive term the quiz-show’s duplicitous host (Bollywood vet Anil Kapoor) uses to openly mock Jamal.

The show’s final question references Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, a metaphor for the film’s central, triangular relationship between Jamal, his brother Salim and Latika (a trio of terrific actors portray each character at different stages in their lives). Orphaned during childhood, each is enslaved as slumdogsstreet urchins consigned to a life of beggary, petty theft and prostitution. Their unending attempt to escape Mumbai’s mean streets and a life of crime frames the rest of the storyline, particularly as it relates to Salim, who graduates into working as a hired gun for a local crime boss as a means to secure both power and protection.

Salim’s treatment of Jamal and Latika is both loving and monstrous: In childhood, Salim steals and pawns Jamal’s prized autograph from a Bollywood film star; in later years, Salim casts out Jamal at gunpoint and claims Latika as his own.

No one depicts grit and grime with more visual flair than Boyle, the director of such hits as Trainspotting and 28 Days Later, but here there are perceptible thematic and stylistic echoes of Fernando Meirelles’ Rio de Janeiro favela epic City of God. Instead of a sheer sociocultural exposé, however, at the heart of Slumdog Millionaire beats a redemptive, romantic, rags-to-rajah fable that transcends its jaundiced milieu without aestheticizing it. While vacillations in Jamal and Salim’s relationship occasionally lack adequate explication, the love story between Jamal and Latika quickly assumes a life of its own. When Jamal uses his Phone-a-Friend lifeline during the show’s climax, the combination of scriptwriting and staging makes for the most soaring bit of romantic uplift found on film this year. Even the Bollywood-inspired song-and-dance routine Boyle rolls outs over the closing credits feels somehow organic and, well, right.

Twain, too, felt a similar emotional uplift in India. “So far as I am able to judge,” he wrote, “nothing has been left undone, either by man or nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his rounds.” As India attempts to rebound back to this ideal, one more lesson from Slumdog Millionaire rings true: Triumph is often born out of struggle.