|He’s poor, this one. No advantages, nothing but his wits and determination. But he’s going to achieve his dream. And get the girl. Because that’s how this story works.
Dev Patel stars in 'Slumdog Millionaire.' (Fox Searchlight)
It’s a familiar narrative in American life--every rags-to-riches story in the Horatio Alger mold fits it. It’s Ben Franklin, the youngest son of the youngest son, making himself one of the most famous—and respected—men in the world. It’s Rocky, the poor beat-down pug from South Philly, dancing atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
It’s Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant father and a wandering mother, standing on the western steps of the Capitol, taking the oath of office to protect and defend a constitution that once said his ancestors were only three-fifths of a person.
And it’s also “Slumdog Millionaire,” a movie set largely in the slums of Mumbai, India, which has been nominated for ten Oscars, and is currently the favorite to win Best Picture. Although “Slumdog” is populated by Indian actors young and old, directed (beautifully) by the British Danny Boyle, and British writer Simon Beaufoy adapted the screenplay from Vikas Swarup’s novel, this movie has a very traditional Hollywood arc to it, which may account for some of the love it’s received. Although the main characters in this film are People Who Don’t Look Like Us (the box-office kiss of death, according to many Hollywood decision makers), the familiar story helps to orient many folks who will never set foot in a slum.
Even with all that is unfamiliar to many Americans--the sprawling and filthy slums, the abject poverty, the strict caste system, the religious violence between Hindus and Muslims, the Indian music, names and scenery--there is much that we recognize besides the rags-to-riches narrative. There’s the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl plot that I was telling a student last week is at the heart of romantic comedy. There’s the device of the game—in this case, Jamal (Dev Patel) is competing on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” although the game could have been—and has been—football, boxing, even karate, eh, Daniel-san? There’s the rivalry between brothers. There’s the quest for Home.
But I think there’s more going on besides well-shaped familiar plots that helps to explain why “Slumdog Millionaire” has been such a critical and box-office favorite. Naturally, I assume something deeper is going on when a work of art connects with many people—particularly people who normally would find the surface differences in a film set in India and starring Indians, at the least, distancing.
In Jamal’s ongoing quest to find and rescue Latika (Freida Pinto) there seems to be something that reminds us of the sacred—both in our desire for what will fulfill us, and in Jamal’s faithful pursuit of something that seems out of his hands. Augustine wrote about his lifelong search for meaning, and while he found ultimate meaning right where it always is—in God—and our stories about how we can find ultimate meaning elsewhere have a way of really messing us up, this story can be an allegory for faithful pursuit of what really matters.
It can also remind us of God’s pursuit of us, Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven,” who pursues us because of love that will not let us go:
All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!
Again, do not mistake me—when we discuss spiritual meanings of film or other pop culture artifacts, it is generally a mistake to make too close a correspondence (i.e., yes, Neo in “The Matrix” is a Christ figure, and there are valuable insights to be gained in viewing him that way, but Neo is not Jesus, because Jesus doesn’t kill people with submachine guns). But in the way Jamal loves unreservedly and does not give up on Latika despite the life her circumstances have forced her to take up, I found a powerful and moving emblem of God’s love for us.
Lastly, in the character of Jamal’s older brother Salim (played in his last incarnation by Madhur Mittal), I found a powerful story of sin, brokenness and redemption. The screenplay sets up parallel actions at the beginning and the end where Salim is sucked into the underworld and service of a mobster, and is forced to make an ultimate choice between his chance for advancement (and his own safety) and his brother. In each case, although he has failed his brother previously, he makes the right decision, although it costs him much. Salim was perhaps the most interesting figure in the film for me, since I know a little about failing those we love, about making the wrong decisions. To see that there is always an opportunity to set things right—which is a spiritual as well as an ethical belief—was powerful for me. I wish there had been a way to reflect the emotional cost of Salim’s last powerful choice more at the end of the film.
As a cultural critic, I understand that our reaction to all of these stories and thematic ideas is shaped by the times in which we live, by our own experiences. I was writing a press release about “Watchmen” for my publicist last week, and inwardly reflecting that this dark and challenging movie—“The Dark Knight” is its closest recent analogue—might have been better off coming out before the recent inauguration (although the ongoing revelations about the Bush administration’s widespread spying and intelligence-gathering and the mess of Guantanamo and foreign torture we are now trying to sort out mean we are still living in the world where paranoia is not a completely inappropriate response to everyday life).
That’s why I agree with TIME media critic James Poniewozik that the success of “Slumdog Millionaire” reflects a paradigm shift in the country that has been incarnated in President Obama:
“As a mixed-race President, Obama literally embodies a changing culture. Every stand-up routine about the differences between black folks and white folks is visibly lamer than it already was. But that’s not just because Obama is half-black and half-white; it’s because he is neither typically black (he comes out of the immigrant, not the slave, experience) nor typically white. Like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ or a mash-up CD, Obama represents a crossing of cultures. His story makes a larger argument: that nothing is as simple as it’s made out to be. Black and white is not simply black and white. And neither, therefore, are our eternal us-vs.-them arguments over faith, sex or war.”
In a world where the rags-to-riches story of Rocky Balboa actually becomes possible, where the Third World-meets-Western World divide gets resolved in such a way that a child of this divide is elevated to the office of the presidency, isn’t it possible that some of the old ways we’ve thought about the world might get caught up into new narratives?
Obama is not Jesus, and his election is not going to make the deserts green or chocolate rain fall from the sky. But a world where we look at people who seem radically different from us and see our common humanity—where we actually care about what happens to each other—seems to me to be at the very heart of the American narrative of hope and inclusion that we aspire to but have so seldom reached in our history.
Greg Garrett is professor of English at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He blogs at The Other Jesus.