There are basically two reasons why one reviews movies: you either see a movie you thought was terrible and you want to tell everyone about it, or you see a movie you think is great and you want to tell everyone about it. If you do this long enough, you will more often than not see films that fall somewhere in between that spectrum of terrible and great. What keeps you coming back for more, however, is that thrill you feel when you experience either of those extremes. The great ones fill your heart, while the terrible ones can wound it and make you question humanity as a whole. I prefer the former of those categories, and I was treated to one last night in Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
There is no poverty like Indian poverty, though I have never personally witnessed it. However, any practicing Catholic with a reverence for St. Teresa of Calcutta, commonly known as Mother Teresa, has at least a passing familiarity with the poor of India. That is where we start and spend most of our time with Slumdog Millionaire, in spite of the somewhat misleading title. Jamal Malik (child Ayush Mahesh Khedekar, adolescent Tanay Chheda, adult Dev Patel) gets his riches by winning the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. But because he is a so-called “slumdog,” a derogatory term for a penniless person from the ramshackle neighborhoods of Mumbai, no one believes that his victory is genuine. Thus he is seemingly arrested after the show and forced, and sometimes tortured, to reveal how he accomplished this feat. From there unfolds one of the more fascinating plot devices I have seen in a film, and one that spoke to the organizational part of my brain as a writer. If you are familiar with the gameshow you know how there are a series of progressively harder questions that are worth more money as you go along. For Jamal, sitting in the police station and answering for his supposed “crimes,” each level provided an entree into a different moment in his extremely difficult life. Layer by layer we move from his earliest memories all the way up to the present day, each moment revealing some clue not only to how he knew the correct responses on the show but also revealing his character. The whole time there are two constants in his life: brother Salim Malik (child Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail, adolescent Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala, adult Madhur Mittal), and his childhood crush Latika (child Rubina Ali, adolescent Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar, adult Freida Pinto). Early on, there is an attack on their section of the slums, an event that separates Jamal and Salim from their parents, and Latika ends up in their company as well. Soon they are picked up by the Oliver Twist-esque child predator named Maman (Ankur Vikal) who forces young ones to beg for money for him. Maman also believes that by maiming his kids it will make it so that they will be given more money, the preferred method being blinding them. Just before this can be done to Jamal, Salim manages to help him get away, but Latika gets left behind much to Jamal’s distress. From there, they start making money any way they can, moving around India selling various items on trains and even providing bogus tours of the Taj Mahal. Eventually they end up in Mumbai where they are able to track down Latika and rescue her from Maman. In the process, Salim gets mixed up in even more crime, obtaining a gun he uses to shoot and kill Maman. This leads him to a life of crime where he betrays Jamal and takes Latika from his brother once more. Now as a young man working in one of those ubiquitous Indian call centers, Jamal uses phone records to find Salim once more. At first he tries to find Latika, but all he ever had was her first name and there are tens of thousands of people with that name in their records. Jamal confronts Salim, and Salim is apologetic, though still firmly in the clutches of organized crime boss Javed Khan (Mahesh Manjrekar). And despite his denials, Jamal suspects Salim knows what happened to Latika. Following Salim to Javed’s mansion, Jamal learns that Latika is with Javed and is being abused. He wants her to run away with him, but their first attempt is thwarted. When they attempt to meet at the train station, she is recaptured by Salim before she can reach Jamal. This is what leads Jamal to get on the show because he wants her to see him. Given its popularity, and the fact that Jamal is so close to the ultimate goal, seemingly everyone in the subcontinent is tuned in, including Latika. It is then that Salim feels remorse for how he treated Jamal, and helps Latika escape and faces Javed on his own. I am going to rein it in a little here because if you have not seen this movie, there is a really clever bit at the end with how she gets to Jamal. All I am going to say is that it is fittingly a happy ending.
By the time you get to the end in Slumdog Millionaire, you have fully invested in Jamal. In reflecting on this movie, it becomes apparent that one thing missing from it is a character arc for Jamal. Not that every story needs to be the same, but when a character starts off in one state and ends in another as a result of the events, it usually works well for the film. For Jamal, his motivation is Latika. Never does he waver in his desire to be with her, and I admire him for his dedication. You can also excuse some of the things he did when he was younger to survive, though it was never at Salim’s level. Besides, by the time we see Jamal at eighteen, he has given up his petty hustles. Still, from losing his mother to being accused of cheating on a national gameshow, the film does an excellent job of building sympathy and tension. You want his performance to be on the up, and up and to see him and Latika finally together. Given all the awful things he goes through, you genuinely do not know how it will turn out in the end. I could not have been happier with how it concluded.
One of the more weightier aspects of Slumdog Millionaire, among many, is the topic of fate. As the film opens, it poses a question as to how someone like Jamal could win so much money. At the closing, the answer is revealed: “It is written.” Fate can be a slippery subject from a Catholic perspective. The constant debate is between free will and predestination, and the history of the whole of Christianity is replete with various answers to this dilemma. God gave man free will. That is written, in the Bible. And yet we are also told that God knows what we are going to do before we do it. Hence are we really making a conscious choice if it is, in fact, already written? Part of the answer to this is simply the mystery that is Faith. There are things that we can never know, only does God. The notion I work with most often lies with God’s will. God wants us to be happy and have a good life, but most of all he wants all of us to have faith in Him and follow Him, to be in a relationship with Him. That is His ultimate will for anybody, but we are free to choose not to follow these directives. Anything else is between yourself and God. This weekend my good friend who suggested this movie to me on social media is getting married. I am sure, if he has not done so already, he will look back on the course of his relationship and see the hand of God in it. This is how it happens for Jamal and Latika. Only God could have sustained Jamal through those difficult times and led him back to Latika. To echo Salim’s dying words after freeing Latika and killing Javed, God is great.
Please see Slumdog Millionaire if you have not done so already. That is really all there is left to say. I guess I could add that while it was directed by English director Danny Boyle, he had an Indian co-director and mainly Indian crew, which I thought was cool. But, in sum, just see Slumdog Millionaire.