18-year-old Jamal Malik, an Indian Muslim from the Juhu slum, is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and is one question away from the grand prize. However, before the ₹20 million (US$310,000) question, he is detained and tortured by the police, who suspect him of cheating because of the impossibility of a simple “slumdog” with very little education knowing all the answers. Jamal recounts, through flashbacks, the incidents in his life which provided him with each answer.
Jamal’s flashbacks begin with his managing, at age five, to obtain the autograph of Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, which his brother Salim then sells, followed immediately by the death of his mother during the Bombay riots. As they flee the riot, they meet Latika, a girl from their slum. Salim is reluctant to take her in, but Jamal suggests that she could be the “third musketeer”, a character from the Alexandre Dumas novel The Three Musketeers (which they had been studying—albeit not very diligently—in school), whose name they do not know.