Ok, so like my review of Sweeney Todd, this review comes several months after everyone I know has already seen the film.
Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire generated quite a stir both in box office and blogosphere. It seems that everyone instantly fell in love with the film. I cannot comment on the accuracy of the depiction of poverty in the slums of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). From what I’ve read there seems to be just as much truth as fiction in that aspect of the film.
What I would like to comment on is the theme that runs throughout the film. If you haven’t seen the film, I’ll warn you that spoilers appear throughout.
The framing narrative of the story is, of course, the game show: India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire where contestant Jamal is competing for the grand prize of 20 million rupees. But his low social stature raises suspicion as to how a “slumdog” could possibly make it that far.
This central question appears at the beginning of the film in the form of a game show question. How could Jamal win that much money? They suggest four possibilities: “a) he is cheating b) he is brilliant c) he is lucky or d) it is written.”
When the question appears at the end of the film (an interesting inclusio that ties together the film’s themes), the answer is revealed as “d) it is written.” “It is written” is a phrase that points toward some unspecified destiny that has guided Jamal to that point. Destiny is the driving theme throughout the film, as manifested in a love story between Jamal and childhood friend Latika.
The story behind the game show narrative is Jamal’s life, and as you may know the answers to each of the show’s questions came from various (and often painful) life experiences. Through the context of the game show, it is revealed that each of his life’s major events has served to drive him closer to the final question:
Prem Kumar: So are you ready for the final question for 20 million rupees?
Jamal Malik: No, but maybe its written, no?
Prem Kumar: Maybe…
But it is his love for Latika that holds the story together. The first act ends with Jamal and his brother losing her as children. They find her later, but Jamal loses her at the film’s midpoint. The final act break is when Jamal finally finds her again as an adult, only to see her taken away by his money-driven brother. His appearance on the game show is motivated by the hope that she would be watching:
Jamal Malik: I knew you’d be watching.
Latika: I thought we would meet only in death.
Jamal Malik: This is our destiny.
Latika: Kiss me.
And it is at this point that Jamal kisses the scar on her cheek, an expiatory gesture through which the audience sees the painful events of their entwined lives rewind, finding fulfillment in each other’s embrace.
DESTINY: EAST MEETS WEST
But what is interesting – and notably absent from most reviews of the film – is the different ways destiny is viewed in eastern and western cultures. Though I am admittedly over-generalizing, eastern and western cultures have decidedly different views on the subject of destiny.
In the west, destiny is usually connected to faith and providence – that there is a “higher power” or god watching over each of us to guide our experiences. The choices we make in life are ultimately used by this “power” to bring about positive or negative consequences.
In the east, destiny is not necessarily connected to a higher source of power, but a more fatalistic component of the karma-samsara cycle. There is a greater tendency to see destiny as something you cannot escape – to “play the cards you’ve been dealt.” Some have suggested a link between this and India’s caste system: people accept their lower class believing they cannot rise above it.
It is unclear to me whether Boyle’s film was designed to reflect a western or eastern view of destiny. The latter would make sense, given the Indian context, and filmgoers undoubtedly foisted their own interpretations.
If the film adopts the western view, then “it is written” might refer to a god(s) having a hand in Jamal’s lifelong journey, bringing him to that point. In the eastern view, Jamal is simply playing a role in a larger game – “it is written” therefore refers to the acceptance of his situation, rather than acknowledgment of a higher power.
DESIRE FOR MEANING
If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ve frequently seen me quote Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. In his novel Coupland highlights (among other things) the desire for present generations to find meaning for their lives:
“The carapace of coolness is too much for Claire, also. She breaks the silence by saying that it’s not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. “Either our lives become stories, or there’s just no way to get through them.” I agree. Dag agrees. We know that is why the three of us left our lives behind and came to the desert – to tell our own stories and make our own lives more meaningful in the process.”
I suspect that the success of this film reflects our culture’s – nay – humanity’s desire for meaning. Humanity needs to feel as though the events of their lives – especially the painful ones – happened “for a reason.” Much of the beauty of the film reflects our own inner longings that our lives have meaning and purpose.
This of course, is not the first film to do this; films ranging from It’s a Wonderful Life to Forrest Gump and even Signs reflect a sense of directedness to the human condition. And so it seems that each of us wants to know, deep down, that at the end of our lives, things happened not because of random combinations of molecules, circumstances or events, but because “it is written.”
WHO IS THE AUTHOR?
But if “it is written,” who is the Author? Ancient scripture tells of a God who knit man together in the womb, a God who “makes known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come (Isaiah 46:9-10).” The ancient Psalmist David cried out:
“O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD. You hem me in– behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.” (Psalm 139:1-6)
In the Greek scriptures, Paul tells the church at Ephesus that they had been chosen “before the foundation of the world” for redemption through Jesus, “to the praise of His glorious grace (Ephesians 1:4-12).” To the Romans Paul writes that “God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” the purpose being conformity with Christ’s character (Romans 8:28-30).” To the philosophers in Athens Paul says that God “determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:26-27).” Over and over scripture affirms two universal truths: (1) God has predestined individuals to be redeemed and (2) Man’s task is to respond in faith to this destiny.
Slumdog Millionaire takes an often hostile view of religion (Jamal remarks, “If it wasn’t for Rama and Allah, I’d still have a mother.”). Yet behind this story lies a greater, much larger story that has been unfolding since before time began. God has set events into motion that we might each respond to His character as revealed most explicitly through the Son. Our task is to choose Him.
Indeed, “it is written.” What’s been “written” in your life?