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Who wants to be a slumdog?

Dev Patel and Freida Pinto, as star-crossed lovers in "Slumdog Millionaire."

TORONTO, Ont.--Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" hits the ground and never stops running. After its first press screening early Saturday morning, it became a leading contender for the all-important Audience Award, which is the closest thing the Toronto Film Festival has to a top prize. And an Oscar best picture nomination is a definite possibility.

The movie does something that sounds unlikely. On one hand, it uses a traditional flashback structure and suspense about a TV quiz show. On the other, it is a searing story of an orphan from the slums of Mumbai who climbs from rags to riches through brutal early experiences. A petty thief, impostor and survivor, mired in the most dire poverty, he improvises his way up through the world and remembers everything he has learned.

His name is Jamel (played as a teenager by Dev Patel). He and his story might remind you of some of the early adventures of Oliver Twist. He is high-spirited and defiant in the worst of times, and with a sidekick and friend he briefly scrapes out a living at the Taj Mahal, which he finds by being thrown off a train. How? By posing as a guide, stealing visitor's shoes, climbing beneath the bleachers at an evening concert and slipping away with purses. But there are other survival tactics not so Dickensian, and his story leads him into the Mumbai underworld and up against dangerous men.

All of this is told in vivid flashbacks during his appearance as a contestant on the Indian version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Yes. Introduced as a slumdog from the bottom of society, he has the correct answers to question after question (the flashbacks show why), and becomes a national hero as the suspense builds. Transfer the premise to a more conventional location, and this story might seem much more conventional. It's the portrait of India that transforms it.

The film uses dazzling cinematography, editing, music and headlong momentum to explode with narrative force, wrapping in a poignant romance at the same time. For Danny Boyle, it is a personal triumph. If you have seem some of his earlier films ("Shallow Grave," "Trainspotting," "28 Days Later," the lovable "Millions") you know he's a natural. Here he combines the suspense of a game show with the vision and energy of a "City of God" and never stops sprinting.

How do actors do it? How do they transform their very beings into the characters we see on the screen? A few case studies.

In "The Secret Life of Bees" (which I'll write about tomorrow), Sophie Okonedo plays May Boatwright, one of three African-American sisters in the deep south. After the death of her twin, she has always been a little fuzzy in the head, and quick to weep. She seems bent, weathered, falling apart. Last night we spoke a little at the hotel where we're both staying. She was tall and beautiful and spoke with a crisp English accent. Two different people. I guess that's the idea. Queen Latifah seems a head taller than her in the movie, but that may be because of acting, too. I don't know. I'll see the movie again. I'm not even going to get started on Dakota Fanning or Jennifer Hudson.

Seen on the street, after leaving George Christie's famous annual Toronto luncheon: The Australian actor Geoffrey Rush, whose "Shine" premiered here in 1996, and went on to win him an Oscar as best actor. Remember him in "Elizabeth" and "Shakespeare in Love?" "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," for that matter? Now picture him loping down the street wearing a dark suit, no tie, and brown short boots that were old when Buffalo Bill was buried. Stopping to try to get his big fingers to work on an itty-bitty cell phone keyboard. Just a big bloke.

At the luncheon: The wonderful Lebanese-Canadian actress Arsinee Khanjian, wife of director Atom Egoyan. She is engaged in a discussion with her table mate. I can't hear a word, but I am transfixed by the flash of her eyes, the dance of her hands, the energy of her presence. You could be deaf and enjoy a conversation with her.

In Egoyan's powerful "Adoration," which I'll write more about, she plays a high school teacher who has a student who responds to an assignment in a way that emotionally blindsides her. An actress who has so much life in her is like lightning in a bottle. Kind lightning, if you can imagine.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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