Jamal (played by three actors at different ages: Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Tanay Chheda and Dev Patel) winds up on a game show, the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Slumdog Millionaire explains how he gets there, and also how he comes to be in police custody with an alternately cruel and curious police detective (Irrfan Khan) who is convinced that the uneducated slumdog-turned-national-hero must be cheating.
Slumdog Millionaire zips back and forth in time between the present day and various chapters in Jamal's Dickensian childhood. He's like an Indian Oliver Twist, but also a version of a Horatio Alger hero, pulling himself up out of the filth by his bootstraps - or he would, if he had any shoes. His childhood is beyond impoverished and brutal, filled with adults who out-Fagin Fagin in their cruelty and exploitation.
His wily older brother Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, Ashutosh Lobo Gajwala, Madhur Mittal) is both a protector and an exploiter. Salim falls in with a bad crowd, as they say, while Jamal scrambles to make a more-or-less honest living (which is more-or-less honest like Robin Hood's living was more-or-less honest).
Jamal is motivated by more than his innate goodness and tenacity; he's moved by what he takes to be his destiny, which is to be with Latika (Freida Pinto), the orphan girl with whom he falls in love when they are young children. Jamal is an idealist and optimist in the midst of just about the worst reality imaginable, and he's defiantly romantic, even though he and Latika seem to be hopelessly star-crossed.
The question of destiny - is it a given, or something we make for ourselves? - runs throughout Slumdog Millionaire like a glittering thread, and the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (based on the novel Q & A by Vikas Swarup) cleverly plays with the notion of fate while revealing how the informal, street-based education that Jamal's hardscrabble life has given him paves his path from rags to (possible) riches.
The cinematography by Anthony Dod Mantle is vibrant and richly textured, and Slumdog Millionaire pulsates with life and color, with sights and sounds that are exotic and vivid (and sometimes unspeakably vile). Both the editing and music are propulsive and irresistibly lively.
Boyle is a thrilling stylist with a knack for inspiring the unexpected and/or inappropriate emotional response; he made a wildly funny movie about heroin addiction (Trainspotting), after all. Slumdog Millionaire stirs mixed emotions, combining sociological verisimilitude and romantic idealism in a kind of brutally honest fairy tale. It's an oddly joyful and uplifting film that is at every sweet and sour, funny and disturbing, wrenching and moving moment an unexpectedly spellbinding entertainment.