The film begins with a cold open on our hero Jamal, awash in a golden camera filter. He sits at a table, dazed, as a large man across from him blows smoke into his face.
Text is overlaid on the screen—we read that we're in Mumbai, in the year 2006. Next, we are told the premise of the film. "Jamal Malik is one question away from winning 20 million rupees," the text reads. "How did he do it?"
The large man slaps Jamal from across the table, and the screen goes dark. The overlaid text continues, presenting us with a series of multiple-choice style possible answers. Our options are: "A. He cheated," "B. He's lucky," "C. He's a genius," or "D. It is written".
As the text fades, we see quick glimpses of images on screen, pulsing in and out of shadows—piles of 1,000 rupee notes, and Jamal on the set of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" as he is introduced to the crowd by the show's host, Prem.
We cut back abruptly to Jamal at the table, who receives another slap. "What is your name?" his interrogator demands.
With another slap, we return to the game show studio, where Jamal looks equally dazed. "So Jamal," says Prem, "tell me something about yourself."
After another rapid cut, we are back with Jamal in the interrogation as he's water boarded. Yikes. "I work in a call center," he reveals as his place of work. "In Juhu." (Juhu's a suburb of Mumbai.)
Back on show, the host continues his own decidedly less violent questioning of Jamal. We learn that at his job he isn't even the one making the calls. He simply "gets tea for people"— a chai walla—much to the audience's amusement.
Prem announces the game's starting, while the screen flashes on a young woman in a train station, peering up at the camera. It won't be long before we learn this woman is Latika, the source of Jamal's inspiration throughout the film.
Back in the interrogation room, a new man enters the scene. "So, has he confessed yet?" the new man, a police inspector, asks the large man. He reveals that Jamal has revealed nothing but his name the whole night. "He's a tough guy," the large man remarks.
"A little electricity will loosen his tongue," declares the inspector. The large man, Constable Srinivas, acquiesces.
The inspector begins to inquire as to how Jamal did it. Did he have a wire? A mobile? A pager? An accomplice in the audience? How did he cheat? When Jamal doesn't answer, he receives a shock of electricity from a car battery.
After Jamal passes out, the inspector berates Constable Srinivas. "But what if he did know the answers?" the Constable asks.
The inspector is quick to reject this idea. Doctors, lawyers, and professors are unable to get half as far as Jamal. "What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?" he asks.
"The answers," Jamal mutters, through a mouthful of blood. "I knew the answers."