This movie jumps back and forth among three key storylines: (1) Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) on the television set of India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire, (2) Jamal being interrogated by the police and accused of cheating on the game show, and (3) flashbacks to Jamal’s childhood.
In Mumbai, 2006, Sergeant Srinivas (Saurabh Shukla), a fat, bald police officer, is smoking a cigar while beating and interrogating Jamal. Jamal is then repeatedly dunked in a bucket of water by the Sergeant and other cops.
Interspersed with the torture sequence are scenes from Jamal as a new contestant on Millionaire. Jamal is introduced to the audience as an assistant at a “telecom company.” The game show host Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor) engages in chit chat with Jamal before asking the first question.
Back at the police station, Jamal has been tied up and hung from the ceiling. The Sergeant reports to his boss, a nameless “Police Inspector” (Irfan Khan) that all he could get out of Jamal was his name. Irritated, the Police Inspector hooks Jamal up to a car battery, threatening to give him electric shock. He asks how he cheated on Millionaire. Jamal refuses to talk. They give him a round of electricity after which Jamal immediately passes out. The cops bicker among themselves about how they used too much juice. The Police Inspector says that Jamal must have cheated. No contestant, not even the smartest doctor or lawyer, has ever won more than 60,000 rupees. Jamal, a kid from the slums, won 10 million. Jamal suddenly wakes up and says, “I knew the answers.”
Flashback to a scene where dozens of children are playing on an airport tarmac. Among them are a very young Jamal and his older brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). The kids are chased by security guards back into their neighborhood. As the guards give chase, locals are seen washing laundry in the sewage filled river while the streets in the Indian slum are littered with trash. Salim and Jamal eventually get caught by their mom. Salim and Jamal are next seen in a classroom, dressed in blue school uniforms. The teacher throws a book at them for disrupting the class. The book is The Three Musketeers (important later).
Flash forward to the police station. The Inspector shows Jamal clips from his stint on Millionaire. On the show, the host asks the first question for 1,000 rupees about an Indian celebrity named Amitabh.
Cut back to Jamal’s childhood. Salim and Jamal are managing an outhouse/port-o-potty, that customers pay to use. The outhouse is at the end of a long wooden plank, on top of a small hill. Just underneath the outhouse is a large mound of excrement. There’s a paying customer waiting to use the outhouse, but it’s currently occupied by Jamal. Impatient, the customer walks away and Salim is upset at the lost opportunity. Just then, Indian celebrity Amitabh Bachchan (Feroz Abbas Khan) flies into the village in a helicopter. All the residents rush towards the heli to try to get a glimpse of Amitabh. Salim decides to play a prank on Jamal, and uses a chair to trap him in the outhouse, so he can’t get out. The only way out is by plunging into the pile of excrement underneath the outhouse. Resolutely, Jamal takes the plunge and escapes. Covered in excrement, he runs towards Amitabh’s helicopter. As he fights the crowd, everyone around him steps away because of his putrid smell. He’s manages to get the Amitabh to sign a photograph. Still covered in filth, he jumps up in celebration.
Later that day, as Jamal’s mom scrubs him from head to toe, Salim secretly takes the autographed photo of Amitbah to a local shop and sells it. Jamal can’t believe what his brother has done, but Salim just says he got a good price and walks away.
Back in the police station, the Inspector has set up a TV where he and Jamal watch clips from Jamal’s stint on the game show that had been televised earlier that day. The next question is what is India’s most famous national phrase? Jamal doesn’t know and is forced to use a lifeline - Ask the Audience. As they watch the clip, the Inspector can’t believe that Jamal doesn’t know the answer. Even a 5 year old could answer that question, he says. Jamal responds by asking the Inspector if he knows who stole a bike that’s been reported missing. Jamal knows, the entire neighborhood knows, and even a five year old knows who stole the bike, but the Inspector doesn’t.
Back on the game show, Jamal has successfully used his lifeline to answer the question. The next question, for 4,000 rupees, is about the Hindu god Rama.
Flashback to childhood. Jamal and Salim are playing in a small pool of water that their mom is using to wash laundry. Suddenly, an angry mob of men appear and attack the locals for being Muslim. The mob quickly gets violent, beating locals with sticks and lighting houses on fire. Meanwhile, the cops don’t intervene. Instead, they’re seen playing cards and telling the locals to piss off.
Flash forward to police station, Jamal tells the Inspector he wished he didn’t know the answer to the question about Rama, because if it weren’t for Rama and Allah, he’d still have a mother -- implying that his mom died in hands of the unruly mob that day. But he does know and he gives the right answer to the question.
On the game show, they’ve cut to commercial break. During the break, the game show host tells Jamal he’s gotten lucky so far, and suggests he take the money and walk away.
Flashback to childhood, Jamal and Salim find shelter from the mob in a small wooden hut. Outside, there’s a torrential rain. A small girl, around Jamal’s age, is sitting outside in the rain. Jamal invites her to their shelter. Her name is Latika (Freida Pinto), and she’s just lost her father. As they sleep in the shelter, Jamal is haunted by the loss of his mom.
Back on the game show, Jamal decides to play on. The next question is who wrote “Darshan Do Ghanshayan”?
Flashback to childhood, Jamal, Salim, and Latika have now become friends, and have set up a makeshift tent in a large garbage landfill. As Latika is picking for trash, three men approach the tent. One of the men, Maman (Ankur Vikal) offers Jamal and Salim cold bottles of Coca-Cola, which they drink heartily. Thinking Maman a saint, the three kids accept his invitation to come with him. He takes them to a camp full of other lost children.
At the camp, the kids get to eat a big meal, and then are asked to sing for Maman. Maman promises to train each child and eventually make them a star. Salim gets into a fight with Jamal, after Jamal laughs at his attempt at singing.
Later in time, Jamal and Salim are driven by van to a place under an expressway where another group of homeless kids are living in squalor. Salim takes a baby from the group of kids and takes it back to the men in the van. Jamal tries to stop him, but Salim insists that “babies pay double.” Jamal, Salim and others then go to the streets to beg for money.
That night, as Salim is sleeping, Latika crushes a handful of chilies and puts them down his pants. Salim wakes up frantic and rushes to the bathroom to wash off the burning chilies, as Latika and the other kids laugh and repeat “chillies on his willy!” Salim swears to get back at Latika for the prank.
More time passes and a boy from the camp is asked to audition for Maman. By now, Salim has become one of Maman’s trusted assistants and he watches on. The boy has sung well and Maman tells him he’s now “ready.” The next thing that happens is one of Maman’s thugs douses a handkerchief with gasoline and covers the boy’s face with it, until he’s unconscious. The men lie the boy on a table and pour scalding hot water on his eyes, so that the boy become blind. (Later on, we discover that the boy is to be put to work singing and begging on a subway platform. They’ve blinded him because blind beggars are given more money by passers by than children who can see.)
Witnessing this, Salim becomes sick to his stomach and throws up in the bushes. When he’s recovered, Maman orders him to get Jamal, the next “auditioner.” Salim hesitates and Maman tells him he has to make a choice -- Jamal or him.
Meanwhile, Jamal is telling Latika all of his plans about escaping to a better life. He thinks that all he has to do is sing good enough and Maman will give him a good life. Salim appears and tells him its time. He takes Jamal to Maman as Latika follows behind.
Jamal starts singing but stops abruptly and demands 50 rupees. He’s a professional now and deserves to be paid, he says. Amused, Maman pays him and Jamal sings on. Maman quietly orders Salim to prepare the handkerchief. Salim grabs the gasoline but abruptly throws it in Maman’s face. He tells Jamal to run. Jamal, Salim, and Latika all run away as Maman and his men give chase. They run to a train that has just started moving. Jamal and Salim jump onto the train. Latika is right behind them, and Salim grabs her hand, but lets go of her, making it look as though her hand slips, and she doesn’t make it onboard. Jamal and Salim look on as Maman grabs hold of Latika. As the train speeds forward, Jamal demands that he and Salim go back to get Latika. But Salim tells Jamal what happened to the other boy. In shock, Jamal says nothing, and they stay on the train.
Back in the police station, Jamal explains to the Inspector that blind singers get “paid double.” The Inspector asks what happened to Latika. Jamal says Maman had other plans for her.
The boys are now few years older and making a good living selling trinkets and balloons to passengers on trains. They essentially live on trains, spending time on the roof, sleeping in stowaway cabins, and stealing food. Occasionally they get kicked off by a train conductor but just get on the next train.
Eventually, they reach the Taj Mahal. There, they discover a whole new racket. They steal the shoes of worshippers who remove them to enter a sacred space. A European couple offers Salim money to give them a “private tour.” He readily complies, feeding them made up stories and facts. The brothers also run a business taking photographs of tourists. One American couple arrives in a Mercedes Benz with an Indian driver, asking the brothers to give them a tour of the “real India.” As they do so, locals strip the Benz of its tires, engine, and other parts. When they come back to the car and see it in its condition, the Indian driver starts beating Jamal. The white couple tells the driver to stop and hands Jamal a $100 bill for his troubles.
That night, Jamal goes to wash his face in the river. The driver’s given him a black eye. As he reaches the river, he sees an elaborate opera being performed in front of the Taj Mahal. Seeing the opera’s lead female singer makes him think about Latika.
Back to the game show, the next question asked is, “Who’s face is on the American $100 bill?” The game show host thinks Jamal wouldn’t know the answer, assuming he’s never seen a $100 bill. But Jamal correctly identifies Ben Franklin, and he’s now just won 1 million rupees.
Back at the police station, Jamal doesn’t know that Gandhi is featured on Indian currency, further leading the Inspector to suspect that he must have cheated.
Flashback to the brothers. Jamal is now an adolescent, and he’s returned to his hometown in search of Latika. He searches everywhere without success, but eventually lands jobs for both him and Salim working at a restaurant. Salim can’t believe they left a good gig and came back to their childhood slum, just to try to find Latika. There are 9 million people in the city, he says. Forget about her.
As the brothers leave the restaurant, they see a blind boy singing and begging in the subway. It’s the same boy who was blinded by Maman years earlier. Jamal recognizes the boy and gives him a $100 bill. The boy tells him that Ben Franklin is the name of the person on the front of the bill. He touches Jamal’s face and recognizes it’s Jamal. He tells Jamal that Latika can be found on “Cherry Street,” but can’t believe that Jamal would go to try to find her, knowing that Maman would also be there. “I’ll be singing at your funeral,” the blind boy yells as Jamal and Salim go to find Latika.
“Cherry Street” is clearly in a prostitution district. Jamal and Salim make their way through the alley and eventually find Latika, who is practicing her dancing, and dressed in a bejeweled sari. Latika instantly recognizes Jamal and asks how he found her. Before he can answer, Maman appears with his thugs. “You really thought you could walk in here and take my prize away?” he asks. “Do you have any idea how much a virgin girl is worth?” He tells his thugs to send him away.
Before the thugs can get to them, Salim pulls out a gun. He points it at Maman, tells him to get on his knees and give him all his money. Maman complies. Salim takes the money, then looks Maman in the eye, and shoots him dead. Jamal can’t believe what Salim did. But he, Latika, and Salim run away.
Back on the game show, the next question is, “Who invented the revolver?” Jamal immediately answers, Samuel Colt. He’s now won 2.5 million rupees.
Apparently some time has passed since Maman’s murder. Jamal, Salim, and Latika break into some sort of hotel that’s been closed down. Salim starts drinking, as Jamal hangs out in the hotel room and Latika takes a shower. Latika calls Jamal a “sweet one.” After his drinking binge, Salim returns to the streets and tells a group of street hoodlums that he’s looking for a man named “Javed” (Mashesh Manjrekar). The hoodlums ignore him until he pulls out a gun. At that moment, Javed, an older sophisticated, well dressed man, appears. He tells Salim he’s been looking to hire someone like him.
Back in the hotel, Jamal tells Latika that he knew he’d find her someday -- that it’s their “destiny.” They both fall asleep. Salim comes back in a drunken rage. It’s clear he wants Latika. Jamal and Salim get into a scuffle, and Salim shoves him out of the hotel room. Jamal keeps knocking on the door, demanding to be let in. Salim opens the door and pulls his gun on Jamal, telling him to leave before he counts to five, or else he’ll shoot him. He starts counting one... two... Then, Latika pulls Salim’s arm down. She tells Jamal to go. She gives Jamal a resigned look as Salim shuts the door.
Back to the police station. Jamal tells the Inspector he didn’t see or hear from Salim or Latika again for a long time. When one of the police officers at the station make an off color remark about Latika, Jamal attacks him and is forced into restraints. The Inspector clears the room and talks to Jamal one on one. He asks why he’s willing to admit to being an accomplice to murder but refuses to admit to cheating on the show? Because when he’s asked a question, he says the answer, Jamal replies.
Flashback again to the telecom company where Jamal now works. Several years have passed since the incident at the hotel and Jamal is now a young adult. The company he works for is called XLS Communications and is an Indian call center. Jamal is a trainee who’s being taught the geography of key places in London, England. The purpose for this is when British customers call and ask the employees who they are and where they’re from, the employees can say they live in Britain and pretend to know what they’re talking about. After the class, Jamal is distributing tea to the employees, when a friend of his asks him to cover for him at his station for just a few minutes.
Two things happen simultaneously at this point. First, Millionaire is playing on a TV in the break room. Jamal explains to his co-workers the precise time you need to call if you want to be a contestant on the show. Second, Jamal gets a service call from a British customer. Untrained, he bumbles his way through the call, and tries to pretend he lives in the customer’s neighborhood. It’s clear Jamal has no idea what he’s doing. When the customer asks to speak to his manager, Jamal hangs up.
Jamal then uses the computer’s database to search for “Latika” and for “Salim Malik.” There are too many entries for Latika, since Jamal doesn’t know and can’t provide her last name. There are fewer entries for Salim Malik. He starts calling them one by one. The third Salim listed in the database is his brother. Jamal pretends to be just another agent, asking if Salim is interested in purchasing a product, but Salim recognizes who he is.
Cut back to the game show, where Jamal is asked where Cambridge Circus is. Of course he knows the right answer is London from his training at the call center. He’s won 5 million rupees.
Jamal and Salim agree to meet in a high rise building that is still being constructed. Salim is now working for Javed. Javed used to be the main gangster of their slum, but the slum has now become a major business development, with a new skyline full of high rises, and Javed has his hand on the economic boom. Jamal asks about Latika. Salim can’t believe that Jamal is still asking about her, and tells him that Latika is “long gone.” Salim invites Jamal to stay with him.
The next day, Jamal secretly follows Salim to Javed’s gated mansion. Inside the gate, Jamal sees Latika, who’s now also a young adult. Jamal convinces the security guard that he’s a dishwasher who’s been hired by Javed. The guard lets him in. Inside the house, Latika asks Jamal why he’s here. “To see you,” he says. “You saw me, now what?” Millionaire is playing on a TV in the kitchen. Latika has a black eye.
Javed walks in and it’s clear that Latika is Javed’s girlfriend. Javed changes the channel to a soccer game. He orders Jamal to make him a sandwich. Jamal and Latika make the sandwich together as they talk. He wants her to run away with him again, but Latika is reluctant. He has no plans for what they’ll do if she escapes, she tells him. She says that she and Javed are moving to Bombay (modern day Mumbai).
Javed doesn’t like the sandwich that Jamal has made and fires him on the spot. As Jamal leaves, he tells Latika that he’ll be at the train station every day at 5:15 pm until she comes. He tells her he loves her. “So what?” she says, “It’s too late.”
Back on the show, the next question for Jamal is about a cricket player.
Cut to a crowded train station. It’s 5:15 pm and Jamal is waiting for Latika. Miraculously, she’s arrived. But she’s been followed by Salim and two of Javed’s thugs. Jamal desperately tries to get to Latika before Salim can, but he’s too late. Salim and the thugs drag Latika back into their car kicking and screaming, and Jamal can only watch as they drive away.
Back on the show, it’s another commercial break. Jamal is in a bathroom stall in the men’s room while the game show host is standing in front of a bathroom sink. The host tells Jamal that the only other person he knows that made it from slum to millionaire is himself. Jamal confesses he doesn’t know the answer to the cricket question. The host says he has a feeling that Jamal will win and leaves the restroom.
When Jamal comes out of the stall, he sees that the game show host has smudged the letter “B” on the bathroom mirror. Back on the set, the host tells Jamal that this is his destiny. Just then, the commercial break is over and the game continues. Jamal decides to use a lifeline -- 50/50. The two remaining choices are “B” or “D.” Jamal looks at the host and tells him his answer is “D.” The host looks at him perplexed, and asks him several times if he’s sure. He is. Final answer, D.
The game show host can’t believe it. But it turns out that Jamal was right. D was the correct choice. He’s just won 10 million rupees. The host pretends to be thrilled. He prances around on stage then asks Jamal if he’s ready for the final question. Before they can get to it though, time has run out for the day’s episode. Jamal will have to come back the next day to finish his game.
After the taping, the game show host congratulates Jamal on his performance, as they walk out of the set. Just as Jamal steps out of the building, police officers are there waiting for him. They throw a hood over his head and take him away. The game show host looks on with a colleague. The host confesses to his friend that he fed Jamal the wrong answer, and that he can’t believe Jamal didn’t fall for it. The friend asks why he did that. Because, says the host, “this is MY show.”
It’s clear now that the police interrogation has happened after the first day of the taping but BEFORE the second day, when Jamal is scheduled to try for the final question for 20 million rupees. The Police Inspector tells Jamal that his explanation for everything that’s happened is somehow “bizarrely possible.” Jamal tells the Inspector he doesn’t know what happened to Latika. But the reason he went on the show was because he thought she might be watching.
In fact, Latika, Salim, and Javed are watching a local news segment about Jamal’s stint on the game show. Halfway through the segment, Javed changes the channel to a dance station. The space becomes an instant party and several young women start dancing seductively with Javed. Latika slips away to another room to continue watching the news. Salim meets her there. He offers Latika the keys to his car as a means to escape. She tells him Javed will kill him if he finds out. Salim says he’ll take care of Javed, and also gives Latika his cell phone. He asks her for forgiveness for “what I’ve done,” as he gently strokes a long scar on the side of her face.
It’s the next day, and Jamal is an instant local celebrity. People are huddling in front of TVs to watch the show, as Latika is desperate to drive to the set of the taping. Unfortunately, she’s run into standstill traffic and decides to abandon the car. She watches the show from a TV displayed in an electronics storefront.
On the set, the final question is revealed: Along with Athos and Porthos, who is the third of the Three Musketeers? Jamal has a choice--he can either try to answer the question or walk away with the 10 million rupees he won the day before. Jamal says he doesn’t know the answer, but he’s going to play anyway. He uses his last lifeline - Phone a Friend.
The phone line is ringing but there is no answer. Jamal tells the host that the number is to his brother Salim’s cell phone. Just then, Latika realizes that Salim gave her his cell phone and that she left the cell phone in Salim’s car. She starts running back to the car, desperate to answer the call. On the set of the show, they are just about to cut the line, and the host tells Jamal, “It looks like you’re on your own,” when, at the last second, Latika answers the phone.
Again, several things happen at once at this point. Jamal is initially confused since he expected Salim to answer. He asks if it’s really her, and she says yes. Meanwhile, Javed has been watching the show, and he realizes that Latika has escaped.
It’s clear that Jamal and Latika are overjoyed to hear from each other. Jamal asks whether she is safe, and she says yes. The host reminds him he only has 15 seconds on his lifeline. Jamal asks her the question about the Three Musketeers. But she doesn’t know the answer. Just as the line is being cut, Latika says, "God will help you" to Jamal in Hindi (no substitles).
At this point, Jamal stops caring about the game. He makes a guess out of the blue - choice A, “Aramis,” final answer. The host asks him why he picked A. Just because, he says. After a long pause, it’s revealed that A is the correct answer. Jamal has won 20 million rupees!
Meanwhile, Salim has locked himself in a bathroom. He’s sitting in the bathtub that is filled with rupees. Javed breaks into the bathroom with his thugs. Salim is waiting for him and kills Javed as soon as he storms in. A few seconds later, Javed’s thugs shoot Salim dead. Salim’s dying words are, “God is great."
Elsewhere else, there’s celebration on the streets as viewers watch Jamal win the game. Jamal is handed a giant check for 20 million rupees.
Finally, we see Jamal wandering a train station alone. In the distance, Latika is there searching for him. Jamal sees her and starts running towards her. As he runs, you see flashbacks of scenes from the movie of his childhood. They embrace at the center platform of the station. “I knew you’d be watching,” he says. He kisses the scar on her face. “This is our destiny,” he says. “Kiss me,” she replies. They share a cinematic kiss.
Fade to black. On the bottom of the screen are the words: “D. It is written.”
As the credits role, the cast comes together on the station platform for a Bollywood style dance sequence.
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