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Slumdog Millionaire is a tinderbox of comedy and drama about a ragamuffin in Mumbai (aka Bombay) who, at age 18, becomes a contender on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. It's a movie of kaleidoscopic contradictions and dazzling clarity. In this Dickensian extravaganza, a scrappy underclass hero comes to stand in for all of us. He teaches by example that if you sift through traumas and disappointments and get to the bottom of your own life, you can mine something of value. Surrender with humility to destiny, and you may just discover that you've written your destiny yourself.

The award for winning India's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: 20 million rupees. Self-awareness and integrity: priceless.

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy's devilishly innovative adaptation of Vikas Swarup's novel Q&A; begins by addressing the movie's audience with a Millionaire-like question (spelled out on the screen): "Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees. How did he do it? A. He cheated. B. He's lucky. C. He's a genius. D. It is written." We don't hear the answer to that question, or Jamal's final answer on Millionaire, until the final flurry of actions and reactions. Instead, the director, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), immediately pulls you into a matrix of volatility and suspense.

An enigmatic undercurrent courses between the oddly serene teenager Jamal (Dev Patel), who usually works as a chai wallah or tea server in a mobile phone company, and the slick yet smarmy Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), the host of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Before you can get your bearings, director Boyle depicts an intense police inspector (Irrfan Khan) and his jolly sergeant (Saurabh Shukla) brutally questioning Jamal about the scam they think has enabled him to move toward the game's final question. As they study a recording of the game show, Jamal explains the traumas that have defined his short, unhappy life - traumas that have seared the answers to Prem Kamur's questions into Jamal's brainpan. The interrogation and the game show provide a complex narrative framework. The flashbacks to Jamal as a grade-schooler and then as a 13-year-old function, ironically, like a play within the play.

The film is a fairy tale because it shows each topic on Millionaire connecting directly to a real-life incident that never fades from Jamal's memory. For example, a scary exploiter of parentless children once compelled Jamal to sing a song based on a poem by a famous author; Jamal must know the title and poet to keep competing on Millionaire. It's like a video-generation version of the antique notion that everyone's life story contains a novel. Here, everyone's autobiography contains enough earned knowledge for him or her to win a lucrative quiz on television. You respond to the democracy of the notion. But it's the protagonist's never-say-die gumption amid serial catastrophes that make you root for him.

He's on the brink of becoming a grand champion. But he's always been teetering toward disaster.

By the skin of his teeth he has escaped a carnival of horrors. They include a horrific Hindu attack on Muslims that leaves him motherless. A terrifying "orphanage" that produces street beggars the way Fagin did pickpockets (with far crueler means). A sometimes stalwart, sometimes selfish and capricious brother, Salim (played as a grown man by Madhur Mittal), who has always tried to horn in on whatever Jamal prizes most, whether it's a signed picture of a Bollywood star - or a real live girl. And the object of Jamal's true love, Latika (played as a grown woman by Freida Pinto), who never appears at the right time or proper spot for her and Jamal to consummate their love. (Three actors play each of the main characters - as youngsters, 13-year-olds and 18-year-olds - it's a tribute to the young-adult actors that their three performances feel like the culmination of the other six.)

Slumdog Millionaire is a second breakthrough for the Manchester-born Boyle. The first was Trainspotting, a film about Edinburgh's drug world that both zeroed in on and transcended its subject to become a flight of imagination about the pitfalls of escapism and the lure of cheap transformations. Trainspotting showed that Boyle could delve deeply into a fresh subculture and emerge with indelible visions of the imperilment of children and the tragicomic degradation of adults.

Slumdog Millionaire dives headfirst into something greater than a subculture - the enormous unchronicled culture of India's mega-slums - and achieves even more sweeping impact. As Jamal leaps from one death-defying incident to another, you're always conscious of the vast, cramped spaces he must cover as well as the crush of people that threaten to block his escape.

Yet the film is also so particularized, you're always storing away (as Jamal has) specific, minutely observed images from the keynote moments of his life. These instants can be hilariously awful, such as an explosive exit from a public outhouse that slum-dwellers pay to use. Or they can be improbably tender, such as Latika standing alone on a road during a monsoon rain - and becoming the center of Jamal's sensitivities as well as his emblem of beauty.

Adults' inhumanity to children has rarely been so forcefully expressed as when the detached and self-assured "Maman" (Ankur Vikal) sweeps the trio up into his "orphanage" and tries to play the brothers off against each other while plotting some lucrative if atrocious employment for Jamal. (You shudder when you hear that blind beggars earn the most money.) Nothing in this movie is cliched, even when Salim becomes Maman's lackey. Where conventional filmmakers would see a cycle of violence in Salim's rise to thuggery, Boyle sees a zig-zag route of self-defense and warped desires.

Visually, the movie is a riot of charged imagery. Slumdog Millionaire uncovers the patterns of chaos; it's a kinetic crazy quilt with a deep inner coherence. The raw, real look makes you see everything afresh, even, in the most sustained comedy sequence, the Taj Mahal, where Jamal pretends to be a tour guide. Musically, it's got a scintillating fusion of Indian and hard-rock English sounds. It drives the action forward like electric Fate.

Throughout this film's vibrant, scintillating two-hour running-time, our want-to-know-what-happens-next keeps us on the edge of our seats - or jumping right out of them. Slumdog Millionaire doesn't cheat; it answers every question it raises. It's that one-in-a-million paradox: a lucid work of art about the mysteries of life.

The movie isn't just about happy endings; it's about the kind of existence that makes you hope for new beginnings. With all this going on, Slumdog Millionaire really is a tinderbox: A spark from any direction is apt to ignite laughter, tears or cheers. Boyle brings down the curtain with a musical number that registers as a gift from movie heaven. He breaks your heart, then heals it - and sends you out with a song.

Slumdog Millionaire

(Fox Searchlight) Starring Dev Patel, Anil Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto. Directed by Danny Boyle. Rated R for language, violence and sex. Time 120 minutes.

online Watch a preview and see more photos from Slumdog Millionaire at baltimoresun.com/movies

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