Jamal Malik (Dev Patal) grew up in the slums of Mumbai—a part of India far away from the tourist tracks. Now, at the age of 18, he manages to get selected to be on India’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and (even more amazingly) claims the TV contest’s big money. Yet how could this uneducated orphan possibly know the answers to such difficult questions?
Convinced he must have cheated, the game show’s host and producer (Anil Kapoor) brings in a police inspector (Irrfan Khan) to interrogate the young man. Using a variety of disturbing torture techniques, including electrical shock and near drowning, the quiet Jamal continues to insist his claim to the top prize is not from underhanded means, but as a result of his combined life experiences.
Flashing back to a series of vignettes that unfold his personal story, this ingeniously written and edited film ties Jamal’s answers into the events of his past. From living in the dumps, to being abducted by men pretending to run an orphanage, the one consistent thread woven through his harrowing existence is Jamal’s fondness for Latika (Freida Pinto). She is a childhood friend from whom he was separated years earlier. Sadly, we quickly sense that even winning a million dollars won’t replace his lost love.
Serving up a cultural feast, Slumdog Millionaire captivates its audience with dramatic performances and humor, along with a grittiness that never feels gratuitous or obsessive. Still, this content is something parents will want to carefully consider before deciding upon the movie’s suitability for family members.
Children are physically and sexually abused. While the latter is more alluded to than seen on screen, the former brutality is clearly evident. One of the more upsetting depictions is that of a child being forced to have his eyes seared by heat and acid because he can earn more money as a blind beggar. Young girls are groomed to be prostitutes, and many scenes show children in danger from predatory adults. Muslim families are subjected to persecution, such as having their homes torched and being beaten and set on fire (adults and children are the victims of this cruelty). Sexual discussions amongst young people are heard, which include the use of crude anatomical terms and two sexual expletives. About a dozen scatological slang words, some mild profanities and terms of deity round out the language. Tobacco use and drinking, sometimes by children and teens, are also shown.
Even so, this Bollywood/Hollywood hybrid does offer an insightful look at a part of the world rarely seen in mainstream motion pictures. Actually shot in some of the poorest parts of India, this movie doesn’t wallow in self-pity. Instead it captures a spirit of hope that screams sincerity. With a fast-paced musical score, it may be an effective way to introduce privileged older teens to a life far too familiar to much of the world’s population. And while not every starving soul may get a shot at a game show windfall, the film still provides some important lessons. Persistence and staying true to your principles are valuable traits for everyone, regardless of whether they are from a slum or the home of a millionaire.