Who would believe that the best old-fashioned audience picture of the year, a Hollywood-style romantic melodrama that delivers major studio satisfactions in an ultra-modern way, was made on the streets of India with largely unknown stars by a British director who never makes the same movie twice? Go figure.
That would be the hard-to-resist "Slumdog Millionaire," with director Danny Boyle adding independent film touches to a story of star-crossed romance that the original Warner brothers would have embraced, shamelessly pulling out stops that you wouldn't think anyone would have the nerve to attempt anymore.
But Boyle has been nothing if not bold with this film. He's dared to use so many venerable movie elements it's dizzying, dared us to say we won't be moved or involved, dared us to say we're too hip to fall for tricks that are older than we are. And, as witnessed by "Slumdog's" capturing of the Toronto Film Festival's often prophetic audience award, he's won that bet.
Because he's a director who is always up for something different, Boyle's films run an unmatchable gamut, from the punk operatics of "Trainspotting" to the sweetness of "Millions," the shock of "28 Days Later" and the science-fiction theatrics of "Sunshine." What unites all of them, though, is the unstoppable cinematic energy pouring off the screen that's at the heart of Boyle's always vigorous style.
Given that, it was perhaps inevitable that the director would end up making a film in India, plugging effortlessly into the phenomenal liveliness and nonstop street life of the place. And he's upped the ante by hiring the great A.R. Rahman, the king of Bollywood music, to contribute one of his unmistakable propulsive scores.
All this dynamism is at the service of a script by "The Full Monty's" Simon Beaufoy, which is in turn based on "Q&A," a novel by Vikas Swarup that involves, of all things, the Indian version of the hit TV show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." If this sounds like unlikely source material for involving cinema, you're not alone in your thoughts: Boyle initially had the same reaction.
What won the director over is the dynamic, almost Dickensian arc of "Slumdog's" story, which begins with a multiple-choice question typed on the screen. "Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees," it reads. "How did he do it? A) He cheated. B) He's lucky. C) He's a genius. D) It is written."
Jamal Malik (Dev Patel of the British TV series "Skins"), the slumdog of the title, turns out to be an impoverished 18-year-old orphan who works hurriedly serving tea to harried telephone solicitors in the great city of Mumbai.
We see Jamal in two places almost at once in the film's cross-cut opening. He's on stage on the "Millionaire" telecast, being needled by Prem (Anil Kapoor), the show's arrogant host. And he's also in a police station the night before the final telecast, being brutally interrogated ("Slumdog" is rated R for "some violence, disturbing images and language") because no one can believe that such a lowly, uneducated person has been able to answer all the questions that he has.
To get back on the show for the final question -- by explaining to the dubious police inspector (Irfan Khan) how he came to know what he does -- Jamal has to tell him (and us) the story of his life, a story where, in true Frank Capra fashion, chance, luck, suffering and street smarts all play major parts.
Jamal's companion in most things is his older brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal), a hard-headed cynic where Jamal is a passionate dreamer, the kind of kid who is willing, in one of the film's most piquant scenes, to literally wade through the offal from an outhouse to get to his hero, Indian film legend Amitabh Bachchan.
Because Jamal's and Salim's lives are full of incident despite their youth, it takes three actors apiece to tell their stories. The youngest of them are Hindi-speaking street kids whom casting director Loveleen Tandan (whose work was so crucial that Boyle gives her a co-director credit) both discovered and worked with closely.
As Jamal describes the specific incidents that led to his being able to answer each of the quiz show questions, he is simultaneously telling several stories, tales of the link between brothers, the never-ending battle with poverty, the lure and pitfalls of crime and the rapid modernization of India.
But most of all -- and it wouldn't be a Hollywood-style movie if this weren't true -- he's telling a romantic story as well, a tale of love at first sight with the beautiful Latika (played as an adult by Freida Pinto), a love that has to fight against all manner of privations, disappointments and despair.
To make this kind of story modern, Boyle and his team, especially cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantel and editor Chris Dickens, have told it in the jazziest way possible, breaking things up into numerous then and now sections and making the dark elements (like the torture used in the initial police interview) much darker than would have been the case in Hollywood's prime. The Warner brothers would have blanched at that, but they would have loved this story, and in that they would have been far from alone.
MPAA rating: R for some violence, disturbing images and language
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute
Playing: In general release