Slumdog Millionaire is a 2008 British film directed by Danny Boyle, written by Simon Beaufoy, and co-directed in India by Loveleen Tandan. It is an adaptation of the Boeke Prize-winning and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-nominated novel Q & A (2005) by Indian author and diplomat Vikas Swarup.
If you are not familiar with the film the synopsis can be found on Wikipedia. I want to restrict my review to the film as a context for raising Gospel issues with friends.
Firstly, the film presents us with opportunities to talk about child exploitation, not only in India but globally. Deliberately acquiring orphans to maim them for begging or to groom them for sexual abuse is a subject we might find abhorrent but nothing is beyond the degradation of sinful humanity. In a post-modern society we need to engage with a public who are still interested in the concept of “evil”.
Secondly, the film deals with a “worldview” that embraces destiny (kismet) that engenders fatalism. As all the central characters in the film (apparently not in the book) are Muslim; Jamal, Salim, and Latika, this destiny is within the context of Islam. The very end screen has the words, D: It is written (translated from the Arabic “maktuub”). The meaning of life is not a very popular subject in the West but as cultures collide in our multi-cultural pluralistic societies we need to address the subject, if not for our own reflection certainly for our dialogue with others.
Thirdly, the two characters of Jamal and Salim seem to represent good and evil. Following the failure of torture to find out how Jamal is cheating (the opening film’s sequence), his “innocence” is unpacked during his subsequent interrogation by the police inspector. During the cross-examination the naive ability of Jamal to answer the quiz questions is revealed as his “destiny”. Several of his life experiences provide the exact answers. When there has been no such experience Jamal trustingly chooses the correct answers. Thieving is either sanitized as justifiable for the two boys’ survival, e.g., duping wealthy tourists at the Taj Mahal, or Jamal is the blameless bystander of violence, e.g., the shooting of Maman by Salim. His gentle compassion towards Latika from the beginning speaks of “purity” and “protection”. Even his adult job as a “chai-wallah” (tea boy) in a telephone call centre (very contemporary) enhances his “virtuousness”.
On the other hand his older brother, Salim, could be interpreted to represent evil. He is the one who shoots Maman, who joins a protection racket run by Javed and eventually gets killed. The final scene in Javed’s safe house is of Salim lying in a bath that is filled with paper money. One cannot help thinking that here is a symbolic representation of the words, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In spite of Salim’s propensity for violence, brotherly love prevails at the most critical moments. And others may propose that Salim, in liberating Latika and dying in the process, has a redemptive role.
Fourthly, the film is a good Bollywood sampler for the Western viewer. Simply the Eastern exposure that it provides the Westerner is a good reason for seeing the film. It is a love story. Across the some 20 years that the flashbacks cover the pursuit of Latika is the thread. The climax of the film is not so much the winning of the 20 million rupees but their uniting. Reunited at Mumbai’s main train station the film credits begin to roll as they dance together in truly Bollywood style with a choreographed troop of dancers.
In the Indian context of relative poverty, exploitation and degradation, it is also a victory of the underdog (the slumdog) to overcome every attempt by the social context to subjugate and destroy the human spirit. This is depicted in the film through the rising public interest of the masses in the TV programme. It is the Bollywood happy ending of love conquering all.
Like all award-winning films there are many other themes and sub-texts running through the story that can be discerned but concentrating on these four will give the Christian opportunities to talk of the eternal truths of the Gospel; sin, the purpose of life, the God of creation, redemption, love, hope, and justice.