The Academy Awards garnered by Slumdog Millionaire last week were well-deserved, to say the least. Amy and I went to see the film a few weeks ago, after multiple recommendations by friends. Even going in with high expectations, the film floored us. It had been a long time since we’d seen a film that tells a story that is true to the human condition yet also dares to hope so exultantly. Not many works of art, films or otherwise, can get you to look evil squarely in the eye and in the end have you crying tears of joy. Slumdog Millionaire does just this.
For those who’ve yet to be graced by the beauty of Slumdog, here’s a quick summary. The film follows one Jamal Malik, a kid from the slums of Mumbai India, who appears on the TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Somehow Jamal has answered all of the questions correctly and is “one question away from winning twenty million rupees.” Time runs out before he can answer the final question, thus building suspense for the next night and also allowing the Mumbai authorities to brutally interrogate him to find out how he has managed to answer all of the questions correctly to that point. Surely a slumdog like Jamal doesn’t possess such knowledge, right? From here the action bounces back and forth between the torturous questioning and a review of Jamal’s life, showing how the answers to each of the questions were emblazoned on his mind through traumatic childhood events—from his immersion in outhouse waste to the murder of his mother. Each of these events, painful as they were, accrue to his advantage at this fateful hour on national television, where Jamal is poised to become wealthy beyond his dreams.
But wealth is not Jamal’s true dream. His sights are actually set on a girl named Latika, his childhood friend and now love of his life. She and Jamal’s brother, Salim, had been abducted by ruthless criminals who cripple orphans to use them as beggars. The brothers escaped, but not Latika. Jamal resolves to rescue her from her captors, and the film follows his tireless efforts to do so—a quest which culminates, of all places, on the set of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Critics have frequently called Slumdog “Dickensian” for the power of its narrative eucatastrophe and Capra-esque for its irrepressible hopefulness. But I can sum up in one word the real magic of the film which makes it so transcendently inspiring: Gospel. That’s right. It’s the theme of unconditional love, where a savior emerges from squalor to put his life on the line for the object of his affections. And don’t think that the film’s creators, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, didn’t have this in mind. Jamal Malik, of course, is the Christ figure, and he practically journeys through hell to rescue his darling Latika from those who enslave her. Jamal rises to public prominence through an extraordinary display of knowledge and understanding, much as did the Nazarene, albeit through the unlikely vehicle of a TV quiz program. And this same display leads to his arrest and trial in a kangaroo court, where his prosecutors take care to beat and humiliate him, before actually hanging him by his hands for more torture. Jamal also has his own Judas—his brother Salim, whose actions both guarantee Jamal’s suffering and prepare the way for his heroic liberation of Latika, consummated not in a steamy sex scene but in a poignant embrace in a train station—an unmistakable image of transport to another land. They will no doubt live together happily ever after. And, the filmmakers ask us, how do we account for all of this? Their answer, quoting one of Jesus’ favorite phrases: “It is written.” Indeed.
It is appropriate that so pure a Gospel story came not from Hollywood, but out of the slums of Mumbai. For all its pretense to the contrary, Hollywood culture knows little of the abject poverty depicted in this film, much less the possibility of mirth in the slums. And Hollywood most certainly knows nothing of the self-sacrificial commitment of unconditional love. Slumdog Millionaire doesn’t flinch at social chaos, cruelty, or the tragic ironies which characterize life in Mumbai. Nor does it tell us what to feel about these things or patronize us with leftist clichés, as most Hollywood directors do these days. No, like the great storyteller he is, Boyle simply describes, letting the narrative do its profound work, leaving us to make our own judgments. The result is a story more full of truth, wisdom, and Gospel hope than we have seen in many years.