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Find out how Slumdog Millionaire fared in this year’s Top Ten!

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. Director: Danny Boyle. Players: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, Azarrudin Mohammad Ismail, Rubina Ali, Tanay Hemant Chheda, Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, and Mahesh Manjrekar. Music: A.R. Rahman. Theatrical Release: November 2008.

You’ve read the top 10. But if there was only one Indian film you were to watch from 2008, make it the Hollywood independent feature, Slumdog Millionaire. A beautifully told story, it will make you laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.

Slumdog Millionaire is the story of 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Patel), a chaiwallah at a Bombay call center, who lands up on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and makes it all the way to the final question. But the authorities have a hard time believing that an uneducated “slumdog” could have answered question after question correctly without cheating. He is arrested and interrogated by the police inspector (Khan). At the police station, Jamal tells the story of his life and describes growing up in the slums of Bombay, where he acquired the knowledge that enabled him to answer each question.

The film moves in time to depict Jamal at age seven (Khedekar), when he and his brother Salim (Ismail) go through the harrowing experience of communal riots. Be warned that some of the images shown here are not for those with weak stomachs. Orphaned and on the streets, the two boys befriend another street kid, Latika (Ali). The love and friendship of these “three musketeers,” as they call themselves, is beautifully portrayed, and I wondered just where director Danny Boyle found such talented child actors. It turns out that the child actors are actually from the slums, and the producers have cleverly built into the children’s monetary compensation the precondition that they must complete their schooling until age 16. Kudos to the team for doing their part to better the lives of this precocious bunch.

The story continues as the children become teenagers; this portion of the film perhaps presented Boyle’s toughest challenge. The audience has already connected with the grown-up Jamal, and the seven-year-old Jamal is impossible not to love. But the gawky, pre-teen trio risks disengaging the audience. It is also at this point that the film goes from Hindi into English. For a Western audience, the shift in language is an asset, but for those who understand Hindi, it feels slightly jarring to hear English being spoken in such colloquial contexts. Despite that, the film remains gripping, as the children encounter even harsher realities of their lives.

Though Slumdog Millionaire is based on Vikas Swarup’s novel Q & A, screenwriter Simon Beaufoy was heavily inspired by Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City. The crux of Mehta’s book is Bombay’s underworld, and how underworld dons are able to attract the otherwise ignored, lowest echelons of society to come and work for them. The film portrays this same process through Salim (Mittal) and his attraction toward money and power.

The performances of the child actors are brilliant. Kapoor, as the host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, is light-hearted and does his role well. Khan doesn’t have a meaty role, and it’s easy to overlook his performance, though well-delivered. Credit should also be given to A.R. Rahman’s fantastic background score, which adds intensity to the richness of the visuals.

How was someone who had never visited India before able to capture the essence of Bombay life to the tee? Unlike many filmmakers who have exposed the social injustices and poverty of India, Boyle’s Slumdog leaves the audience with a positive feeling about the people and the place. I hope that this film will encourage indigenous Indian filmmakers to portray India and its people in a more truthful, yet equally hopeful, light.

Antara Bhardwaj is an independent filmmaker based in San Francisco.