Just as the unlikely Jamal Malik won twenty million rupees, his very “foreign” (and therefore unlikely) movie recently took home an armful of Oscars. Both the events of Slumdog Millionaire and the event of the film itself trigger theological reflection in a time when the daily national news is full of the loss and the meaning of money, Ponzi scheme exposures, rising unemployment statistics, and mortgage foreclosures.
Some grumpy reviews have denigrated the popular success of Slumdog, in which a boy from the slums of Mumbai becomes a millionaire, by calling it a “kids’ yarn,” with an “impossibly shallow” plot, a “feel-good” movie. These labels pejoratively suggest slick superficiality and shallow fluff, as though intelligence and taste require one to be insulted by childlike celebrations of happiness.
The same review in the Observer newspaper which calls it a feel-good film also insightfully notes its marked “Dickensian feel”, but fails to mention that Dickens was a crassly popular writer in his day, causing fans across the ocean weeks and months of nail-biting suspense as they waited on American shores to read the next instalment of his current novel’s plot in best-selling magazines.
The New York Times review found the movie undeniably seductive but sternly warned that it “makes for a better viewing experience than it does for a reflective one,” again, because of its fairytale quality.
It is curious that so many reviewers feel the need to remind us all to watch out for the dangerously sly appeal of happiness that may sneak under our skins if we aren’t properly wary. Don’t be taken in by this charming but ultimately false fairytale, they warn.
Feminist sensibilities could also be provoked by the ad nauseam romantic aspect of the plot: the beautiful, powerless woman is rescued by the prince of her heart to live happily ever after – a man loves her and someone will, finally, take care of her.
But where does fairytale end and myth begin? To use Slumdog’s language, what is written? Is it written that every child born into miserable conditions will grow up to enjoy a happy life? Of course not. The appeal of Slumdog is mythic, symbolic, and, therefore, in the broad sense of the word, religious, telling what is deeply true and teaching how to live in harmony with truth.
Reviews that regard the movie as “seductive” assume it offers a false road map that will only lead to dangerous dead ends, since it does not seriously engage the perils of navigating real life.
But who could accuse Slumdog of glossing over unbearable suffering? In depicting such suffering but also showing a positive outcome, it is the compass rather than the road map, much like the mythic tales of many religious traditions.
Theological reflection on the powerful stirring of the heart that Slumdog achieves suggests that the movie touches deeply and awakens something like faith, which has more than once been called foolish, naïve, and childish.
The story is not fairly summarized as just another underdog triumph, and the differences between the two brothers at the centre of the movie go much deeper than temperament. After all, Salim’s aggressive feistiness is a gift which saves his brother Jamal’s eyesight. Their tension is not reducible to the fighter and the lover stereotypes, for Jamal is also a scrappy survivor.
The “realist” Salim’s wealth is a fruit of his repeated abandonment of his own heart and deepest spirit, and the parting of ways between the brothers results more from this repeated choice than from a personality clash.
Salim continues to betray his own heart in the belief that this way of living constitutes strength and success. Jamal shares and risks his well-being over and over, refusing to compromise his integrity, in repeated choices which build his strength and wisdom.
He is not a dreamy idealist; rather, his rooted integrity is evident in how he endures interrogation and torture, and also in his shrewd read of the talk show host’s character, which enables a correct guess at a crucial moment.
This movie has much to say about how to live. It has nothing whatever to say about the probability of winning twenty million rupees on a game show or living happily ever after with a rescued damsel in distress. In abandoning, abusing, and controlling Latika, in forcefully taking what he thinks he must have, Salim loses what he needs most: his own life’s meaning.
In Jamal’s story, the girl and the rupees symbolize the meaning and fulfilment that a courageous way of living brings about, even in a context of horrific suffering.
What is written is that a life of integrity is its own reward.
© Alison Downie is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at Duquesne University, USA. Her area of specialization is Feminist Theology.
**With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.**