In the film's intriguing central conceit, uneducated call-center worker Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), one question away from winning the top prize on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, falls under suspicion of cheating. After all, the officials reason, how could a mere "slumdog" know all this useless trivia? Under interrogation by the show's investigators, Jamal explains how he learned all of the answers, each question triggering a flashback to a formative event in his life where he picked up the relevant bit of information not, of course, through book learning, but through the happenstance of a hardscrabble street life. So Jamal's catalog of misery begins: he learned one answer when his mother - a Muslim - was killed by militant Hindus; he learned another when he was nearly blinded and forced to sing in the streets for pay; a third came to him when his brother gunned down a local gang-leader.
But none of these horrific events - many of which mirror the central strands of contemporary Indian history (religious conflicts, a rapidly globalizing economy) - are allowed to have any real emotional impact; they're all swallowed up in the overwhelming gloss of Boyle's aesthetic overload. When a young Jamal and his friends are chased through the slum by police, we're scarcely given a moment to get our bearings. The assaultive rock score, the blur of bodies in long shot, the relentless cutting - rather than give the impression of dizzying motion and imminent danger, leave the viewer feeling simply dizzy instead. Then there's the question of Boyle's color saturated palette. From the wares in the crowded marketplaces to the fabrics being dyed in the countryside, the director constantly dots his frame with little squares of vivid pastel. Call it the Gabbeh effect: these colors add a welcome vibrancy to Boyle's otherwise negligible compositions, but they're also a bit too close to a dangerous exoticism, dressing up an impoverished "foreign" milieu for the romantic contemplation of Western viewers.
There's nothing that will seem foreign to these viewers, though, in Slumdog's ending. Having proved the validity of his knowledge, Jamal returns to the Millionaire set to answer the final question. Meanwhile, the love of his life, Latika, escapes her imprisonment and rushes to meet him. At the same time his brother commits the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. Yes, it all comes together in the film's final segment, including the 20 million rupee question that directly recalls Jamal's first meeting with Latika when they were just two homeless kids on the streets of Bombay. Cutting between Jamal on stage, his brother getting gunned down, his woman inching her way through stalled traffic and a series of flashbacks that reference each of the film's major episodes, Boyle's heavily labored finale wrings out every last drop of sentiment from the film's overstuffed catalog of events. But having so inadequately prepared the viewer for any kind of authentic emotional response - the director's "humanism" continually submerged in a visual/aural onslaught - Boyle gravely miscalculates the impact of his severely strained conclusion. Where he shoots for sob-wracked cheering, he elicits only groans.