When we're first introduced to Jamal Malik, he has been winning on the Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" and the police are torturing him to find out how he's cheating. For the bulk of the next two hours, we see the relevant parts of his life story that explain how this impoverished orphan got to be so peculiarly knowledgeable.
The word we're looking for is "Dickensian". That's right, Dickensian.
We see religious riots, beggar factories, gangsters, and strange sorts of enterprise (lightly to heavily criminal) as Jamal and his brother Salim survive and diverge on their paths through life.
Jamal is an exceedingly good character. It's not that he doesn't swindle and steal--he has to, to survive--but given an opportunity to live honestly, he will. His driving force in life is to be united with his true love, Latika.
His brother Salim is jealous of Jamal's affection toward Latika, and this causes innumerable problems. Salim more fully internalizes the horror of the world that he comes from and, in a turn reminiscent of those old '30s Bogie movies, as Jamal walks the straight and narrow and Salim falls in with the neighborhood gangsters.
It's almost old-fashioned except for director Danny Boyle's flair. Boyle seems to be enjoying an artistic peak with his last four films (28 Days Later, Millions and last year's under-rated Sunshine).
The acting is top-notch but you're not likely to have heard of them. Jamal is played by Dev Patel (and a more generic Indian name there isn't), whose only previous credit is the British show "Skins". Madhur Mittal plays Salim, and his only other credit is a minor role the Indian film Say Salaam India (which I think actually played at our local Laemmele, though without subtitles). And "the most beautiful woman in the world" is played by model Freida Pinto in her first role.
"Freida Pinto" sounds Mexican, doesn't it? But she's a Mumbai native! She is, plausibly, the most beautiful woman in the world, too.
The only actor I recognized was the great Irfan Khan, who has also appeared in The Darjeeling Limited, and whose performance in The Namesake was simply unforgettable.
The great thing about Boyle, IMO, is that he's never boring. This is a movie of great depth and art that doesn't seem to belabor the point. The religious riot scene is heavy, but appropriately so. And the whole thing moves along lightly even though it's awash in the desperate poverty and corruption of India. There's a curious optimism there, a buoyancy provided by Jamal who manages to wade through the muck without being spoiled by it.
In the process, he becomes a hero to thousands of impoverished India who see "Millionaire" as a note of hope.
The Boy was a little under the weather and so became fixated on the economics of the two brothers living on the street. He liked it but was sort of unmoved as a result.