I always enjoy hearing my friend Adam play in The Diggy Band–almost as much as I enjoy talking books and movies with him. Last weekend when he stopped by the table on break, he gushed about Slumdog Millionaire…by saying almost nothing. The look on his face when he asked if I had seen it… what he didn’t say, couldn’t say because he was so moved told me this must be some movie. Truthfully, though he’s a discerning critic, I expected him to like it. He and his wife, Amy, had gone to India to meet their sponsored child. Over a span of years and countless plates of The Cuisine of India’s Tiki Marsala, the three of us had discussed the country they so love. Still, I’d never seen Adam as awestruck as he was by this recent release.
Based on Vikas Swarup’s debut novel, Q & A, and nominated for Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Director (Danny Boyle), and Best Screenplay/winner of Best British Independent Film and Best Newcomer (Dev Patel), it is the story of an Indian street kid arrested for cheating on India’s version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Through his interrogation, we learn by flashbacks how he had the answers and why he wants to finish the game show despite his seeming indifference to the money.
I’ve always had a thing for gritty underdogs whether Heathcliff, Scarface, or Aladdin, so slumdogs were barking my name.
Gritty I got. Some of the first few minutes made me consider waiting for Kim in the lobby. I can’t stomach graphically violent torture scenes. The intensity/suspense of pending cruelty or bullying usually makes me run. But the movie was her pick and my treat (her birthday was the next day), so I shut my eyes and hung on. I’m so glad I did.
Like a hearty Biryani, Slumdog is a rich mix of classic fare. As Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Great Expectations condemned cruel class disparity in Victorian London, Slumdog reveals staggering social injustice in modern Mumbai. And like Oliver and Pip, Jamal, the quietly courageous, ever determined, and longsuffering hero is a soulful survivor. Facing the trash heaped literally and figuratively in his life–at times with a pragmatic “It is what it is” and at others with a fierce romanticism– Jamal is a foil to his brother, Salim. On many levels Jamal and Salim parallel The Kite Runner’s Amir and Hassan, and East of Eden’s Adam and Charles Trask. And told in flashbacks, Jamal, Latika and Salim’s saga have similarities to the back-stories of Sahid and Mr. Eko of Lost. We pull for Jamal and Latika who fall in love in childhood as we did for Pip and Estella, Cathy and Heathcliff. The prejudice of the police who are convinced a poor kid would have to cheat to succeed made me as angry as the Educational Testing Service in Stand and Deliver. And yet in one scene there’s a dance as joyful as that of Olive and Company in Little Miss Sunshine. I can’t imagine a stronger Academy Award contender–not only because of comparisons that place it in the company of greatness, but also because of those twists and truths we don’t see coming as moviegoers and Westerners–the resolution which I won’t spoil–the homage paid to the human condition and faith.
Slumdog is brain and heart food. Though there’s some comic relief and a storyline built around game show trivia, its issues are in no way trivial. The genius crafting of the plot is much like that of Shakespeare in Love or Life is Beautiful—truly a triumph. More importantly, not since Hotel Rawanda have I been so moved to do something about injustice and poverty. When I was younger I’d ask why God allows such misery. Now I wonder why we allow it when He has given us the means to alleviate much of it. Watching Slumdog in the Green Hills theater—one of the most privileged parts of Nashville–I thought of the money I’d spent on the Super-Sized popcorn and Coke I couldn’t finish. I thought of how for the second Christmas in a row I was secretly disappointed not to find a pair of Uggs under my tree. I thought of how much most of us are blessed, and that while the US does a lot for some third world countries, we don’t do nearly enough about worldwide poverty, child abuse, human rights. I don’t do enough. The movie was hard to watch because I felt overwhelmed with guilt in going about my daily routines while so many are perishing. I again wish I could do more than just sponsor a child as I have in Brazil. I want to meet her more now than ever. Though my own children are almost grown, I fantasize about adopting a child to give her a better life.
I had coffee this morning with a former student. After a mission trip in Africa last summer where she saw children dying of malaria, she plans to use her biology major for global responses to epidemics. Maybe as a teacher I can influence more young people to consider global involvement when choosing a career. Maybe I can get more involved politically in the belief that we’re here to make a difference…and to believe.
It was good being reminded again that faith can move mountains. To never give up. To concentrate on what’s good while going through what’s awful. That love is redemptive.
Slumdogs and soul mates. Nothing better than that.