Photo above by Humayunn N A Peerzaada
At the core of Slumdog Millionaire is the question: Have our lives already been written before us, or do we ultimately influence our destiny? The answers to the question unfold against a vibrant and colorful, but often raw geographical and human landscape in which India is as much a character as the protagonist, Jamal.
At last week’s Golden Globes, director Danny Boyle (whose past work includes The Beach , a polarizing film amongst travelers), picked up the best drama and best director awards for his tale of Indian slum dweller Jamal Malik, who finds himself one question away from winning the TV quiz show, “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”
But before possibly walking away with the prize money, the nation’s hearts, and even the love of his life, Jamal has to endure torture at the hands of Mumbai’s brutal police, who believe he cheated at the game. The suspicious inspector asks, “How could a slumdog know the answers to those questions?”
The answer: Destiny.
“I knew I’d find you in the end. It’s our destiny.”
Under interrogation, Jamal tells the inspector his incredible life story. None of the young boy’s experiences from childhood to this moment, sitting handcuffed in a chair, are of his own doing. In fact, all Jamal ever did was simply survive as life propelled him from one life threatening or life affirming experience to the next. As we come to realise, though, there was greater meaning to it all.
Underlying the story of Jamal’s life are questions that affect us all: Are our lives really mapped out for us? Does everything happen for a reason? Surely our lives aren’t pre-determined; we shape them through our decisions. Choice, not chance…right?
These are questions with particular resonance for travelers, who know that the momentary decision to go one way or the other will change one’s journey– and even one’s life–and nothing is likely to be the same again. We can’t leave such meaningful decisions to the heavens; we’re in control. Or are we?
A Nation of Apparent Contradictions
You’ll ponder these questions throughout Jamal’s story, but the real subtext of this film is India. Danny Boyle’s visceral film-making drops you right into the streets. Filming hand-held, guerrilla style, on location, Boyle conveys the the beauty and extremes of India–from dilapidated Mumbai shantytowns and endless garbage-strewn landfills to exhilarating train journeys and colorful mass riverside laundrettes– in an intimate way.
‘You don’t take [Mumbai] for granted, ” Boyle said in an interview promoting the film. “You know nothing about how it assaults your senses. For a dynamic film-maker like myself, it’s everything I could ever want.”
That “everything” includes characters. By setting Jamal and his narrative among the country’s lowlifes, degenerates, innocents, and angels, Boyle ensures that Jamal’s experiences shock and inspire viewers in equal measure.
“I think one of the reasons the film seems to work for people is that it is very extreme,” Boyle said. “That’s what they have there. You’ve got to portray it as an extreme experience. Everything is full-on.”
“It’s a tough place! There’s a lot of poor people living there leading very tough lives. You’ve got portray that accurately. There are beggars who have been crippled deliberately to make them better beggars. You’ve got to get your head around that.”
“You get it rougher in India at the moment,” concluded Boyle, Empire. “….[I]t allows you to tell a story like this.”
Beyond raising questions of destiny and beautifully portraying Mumbai’s darker side, “Slumdog Millionaire” is also likely to help travelers reflect on their own experiences of India.
Release Year: 2008
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: Simon Beaufoy, Vikas Swarup (book)
Stars: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto
You shouldn't need to ask the audience to determine whySlumdog Millionaireis considered one of the defining films of the 21st Century. (It's not just because it nabbed a Best Picture Oscar… and seven other Oscars besides.)
You shouldn't need to use the 50/50 lifeline to figure out how Slumdog Millionaire broke box office records worldwide. (It's not just because it has the best soundtrack since Pulp Fiction.)
We guess you can phone a friend to talk more about this movie… but that's really up to you.
Just like the city in which it takes place, Slumdog Millionaire is full to bursting with sound, color, culture, and dramatic juxtaposition. (Yup: Slumdog Millionaire does not take place in Bridgeport, Connecticut.)
This flick runs the gamut of comedy, drama, melodrama, thriller, and romance, exploring issues from poverty and social status to destiny, morality, forgiveness, and love. It tackles crime, and corruption, wealth and power.
And—oh yeah: it also explores one man's backstory while he's being tortured by the cops, while he's a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. How much more nail-bitingly intense can you get?
Through each question on the show, we learn a new piece of protagonist Jamal Malik's fascinating past, piecing together the puzzle of his incredible life story as he goes from being an orphan in the Mumbai slums to a rich man who wins the heart of the love of his life.
Of course, this story has its gritty side—but you probably figured that out from the key phrases "tortured by the cops," "being an orphan," and "Mumbai slums." The film pulls no punches exploring the realities of slum life, in its staggering poverty, corruption, hardship, and heartbreak.
But at the end of the day, Slumdog Millionaire is not a story of despair and hopelessness. Instead it's a tale of resilience. It's empowering and uplifting… and super-crazy romantic.
In many ways Slumdog can be seen as a Dickens novel for the 21st Century, a rousing rags-to-riches tale for a multicultural, globalizing world.
And it's also a testament to our world changing for the better. Now that Hollywood isn't just only interested in stories about white kids who live in Western countries (although we've got a looong way to go before we get enough POC representation), movies like Slumdog can be made, succeed wildly… and force ear-worms like the Oscar-winning "Jai Ho" into our daily shower-singing regimen.
Slumdog Millionaire is no stranger to accolades. It cleaned up at the Oscars in 2009, winning eight total awards from Best Picture all the way down to sound mixing.
It's been praised by audiences and critics alike, from all over the world, as an inspiring, heartfelt, and extremely well crafted film. It has been no slouch financially either, grossing over $378 million—or about 25 billion Indian rupees—since its release.
But the most important reason to care about Slumdog Millionaire has—weirdly enough—less to do with what people love about this film, and more about all the controversy it stirred up.
Here are a few of the big issues:
- This movie's depiction of poverty has been seen as stale and insensitive, leaning on old clichés while failing to capture the pride and dignity of actual slum residents. (Source)
- Some view the film as a form of "slum tourism," or "poorism," where from the safety of their living rooms, Western viewers can vacation in the lives of the slum dwellers for a couple hours, while still making it back in time for dinner. (Source)
- Slumdog Millionaire has been critiqued as "poverty porn," in which the very real, very troubling experiences of those living in poverty are simplified and glamorized to fit the "feel-good" tone of the film. (Source)
- This flick was written, directed, and produced by a bunch of British people—people from, you know, the ex-Empire that colonized India for almost a hundred years. And yet Slumdog Millionaire is perhaps the best known "Indian" film in the Western world. Um. That ain't right, right? Is Hollywood guilty yet again of cultural appropriation, exploiting another culture for the sake of turning a nice profit?
And that "but" is where the question "Why Should I Care" gets answered…or at least complicated. Because there's a rebuttal for each of those talking points listed above.
Check it out:
- Is this film's depiction of poverty insensitive, or is it humanizing? After all, the Big Bads of the movie are the people who are raking in the cash, either by being slumlords or hosts on swanky game shows.
- This film can be seen as "slum tourism," but isn't it important to bring views of the wider world into the living room? How else are average Middle American moviegoers going to get a virtual peep into Mumbai slums?
- It's beneficial for people to see poverty depicted on the silver screen, even if this movie does end with a happy dance number. Slumdog can be seen as medicine served with a spoonful of sugar—the audience gets the sweetness of romance and Bollywood glitz, even while it learns about grinding destitution.
- Yeah, Danny Boyle's a Brit. But he used his superstar director status to make a movie about a side of life rarely explored in Hollywood. He's not Indian, but the success of Slumdog Millionaire probably turned a lot of Bollywood-ignorant people onto the awesomeness of Indian cinema and paved the way for Indian films to get increased attention.
We know: that's a lot of issues. That's a lot of controversy. And hey—that's the point. This is a controversial film, which is exactly why you should care. And you should also care about the big controversial questions it poses.