The title Slumdog Millionaire may sound strange, but it speaks to the style and tone of Danny Boyle's latest production. The film gracefully slides between fairy tale romance and gritty drama, portraying a dichotomy that Boyle (1996's Trainspotting and 2002's 28 Days Later) considers essential to a representation of India, where the movie is set.
"It's just India," he explained on a recent visit to San Francisco. "Their movies are fantastical, kind of like ridiculous things, and the life on the street is brutal in one sense, and yet the two sit together."
"Fantastical" and "brutal" characterize the plot of Slumdog Millionaire, which follows former Mumbai street kid Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) as he struggles to beat the odds and win it all on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Also at stake: the beautiful Latika (Freida Pinto), love of Jamal's life. It sounds far-fetched and indeed it is but the story's universal appeal keeps it grounded.
"It's a classic international story," Boyle said. "It's an underdog who has a dream, and he'll get to that dream. And it's fortunately got this device, the Millionaire device, the show device, which is universal now."
By featuring the game show so prominently, Slumdog Millionaire runs the risk of feeling gimmicky. To its credit, the central device remains just that an outlet for Jamal to revisit his past rather than a flashy distraction. As Boyle put it, "It's just a tool to help you get to the people, and that's all."
At the same time, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? works on a symbolic level. According to Boyle, the show stands for a certain ideal. As Jamal's winnings expand, India itself develops as seen by new high-rise buildings that spring up in Mumbai over the course of the film.
"[Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? has] an idea in it about the way the West is exported that now India is chasing," Boyle said. "That show is an expansive show you make more and more money, and it grows and grows and grows."
Yet nothing about Slumdog Millionaire is heavy-handed or out of place. It's a credit to the filmmakers that every moment, from the harsh street scenes to a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number, is integral to the story. In the end, that juxtaposition is what helps the film capture a sense of the "real" India, however tenuous the concept.
"You either stand back and look at it sort pictorially, [or you] dive right in there," Boyle noted. "You get a bit of the flavor of what Mumbai is like as this electric city. So that was the idea, that was the approach."
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE opens Wed/12 in Bay Area theaters.