A movie with destiny as the primary message is sure to stretch the viewers’ suspension of disbelief, but Slumdog Millionaire is more like a children’s fairy tale than a movie created for an adult audience. Why are people so gratified by the improbable outcome? Are we really that uncritical and naive? There is not a single loose end left hanging by the end of the movie. Each and every character with a speaking role gets his comeupance and these fates are delivered in rapid fire sequence so there is not the faintest question left hanging in the viewer’s mind at the end. I estimate that any credibility the film has begins to slide when Salim decides to redeem himself by helping Latika escape and snowballs from there.
Let’s start by examining the problematic Latika. We never know her origins. She appears outside of a train car where the two brothers are sleeping and is invited inside to escape a torrential rainstorm by Jamal against his older brother Salim’s orders. Here we have the precident set: Salim is a bastard, Jamal is a do-gooder and Latika is a victim in need of rescue. Why else would she be crouching alone in the rain as if she had no sense? Surely there was other shelter to be had in any number of places, but she squats helplessly as she is pelted by the rain, staring vacantly into space and waiting for an invitation into the train car that the brothers share. This points to Latika’s complacency, idiocy and inability to act with any sense of autonomy.
Somehow, though everything in the movie points to the fact that Latika is a dim bulb, washed to and fro by waves of fate and the male characters' whims, we are also meant to believe that she still has an untouched virgin heart that has prevented her from becoming consumed by the evil and corruptive influences around her. Yes, even though she hasn’t got the common sense to find shelter from a violent rainstorm on her own, she has the steely resolve to nurture and protect the love she has for her childhood friend even though she was forced into prostitution as soon as she budded breasts and has been exploited, raped and abused ever since by vile gangsters.
Talk about a hooker with a heart of gold. Even the vengeful slash left on Latika’s face during her first escape attempt is conveniently placed in such a way that she is still stunningly gorgeous and able to mask the flaw with her hair, remaining superficially worthy of rescue in the end. Not even her beauty could be compromised to allow for one lesson to be imparted to the viewing audience. She has apparently escaped being destroyed by sexually transmitted diseases despite years of prostitution and is still gorgeous though her face has been mutilated. Convenient.
Her escape at the end is engineered by the evil Salim who has magically come to understand the error of his ways in such a profound manner that he suicides by gangster in a final fuck you gesture in which the even more evil Javed’s money is spattered with Salim’s blood.
The deeply conflicted Salim treads the line of evil bastard and heroic rescuer. He kills the child exploiting, suspiciously Michael Jackson-ish Maman as a teen, thereby rescuing Latika only to claim her as a personal possession, raping her before selling her into prostitution. He is then “destined” apparently to repeat this series of events in order to set her free as he takes several bullets after murdering her most recent exploiter in a blaze of glory fit for a Bon Jovi video. Too problematic to live, apparently, the only solution for such a complex character in the world of Slumdog Millionaire is to be riddled with bullets soon after realizing the futility and folly of his existence.
Finally, Jamal. What can be said about this Pollyanna? Jamal has a clearly defined sense of right and wrong, putting his life at risk several times throughout the movie to stand up for his principles, for love and out of sheer altruism. We are led to believe that the only reason he even tries to get on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? is to use the popular platform of the show to contact Latika. How this would result in any ability on her part to contact him after seeing him on the air remains a mystery. Apparently, since his motives were pure in going out for the show, he succeeds not only in becoming a contestant, but also in winning the highest prize on offer.
One is forced to wonder if the police who are questioning Jamal throughout the movie are on to something. A clever conceit indeed to insert the unbelievability of the plot into the movie as critical to the story structure. Following the “whoever smelt it dealt it” line of logic, you have to assume that the makers of the movie were well aware of the implausibility of the major plot points and went ahead and inserted the fact that Jamal is under criminal suspicion of lying and cheating into the film in much the same way a thief may call his victim’s attention to the fact that something is missing to deflect suspicion from himself.
There is no deep reflection to be had after watching Slumdog Millionaire. There is no work to be done by the viewer, no question to be resolved and no real lesson to be gleaned or understood by the movie. The message seems to be that if you can keep your intentions pure and refuse to be corrupted by a cruel world and incredibly difficult circumstances, then you will be the recipient of extraordinary rewards, monetary and otherwise. If, however, the world puts its dirty, greasy thumbprint on you and you end up spiritually sullied in any way you will be punished.
The real mystery is why America so eagerly lapped up Slumdog Millionaire and awarded it so thoroughly. The pat solutions it lends to existential questions cause disappointment and anxiety in the thinking viewer. Is the moral lesson that we are meant to come away with the juxtaposition of the evil “blood” money with the “clean” money earned through Jamal’s purely motivated game show appearance? Money seems to be the central issue. Clearly this movie deals with conceits such as “right and wrong” and “good and bad,” and yet it deals with them in such an overly simplistic way that intellectual gratification is sublimated. Slumdog Millionaire steals any conjectures from the audience of what any of the suspenseful and interesting action leading up to the grand finale could mean by tying it up with a shiny bow that answers every question before it is even asked.
Addendum: Though Salman Rushdie wants to take credit for being the only nay-sayer of this movie and I’m sure I would agree with many of his points, there is plenty of criticism for the shallow treatment of these Indian characters at the hands of Hollwood to be read by critics in the Indian world. Rushdie conveniently takes credit for being the only critic of this movie, though perhaps he is merely the only critic who is famous thoughout the western world.
Lost in Translation by Mukul Kesavan of The Telegraph, India
Slumdog Millionaire: A Warped Picture of India
by Gautaman Bhaskaran, the Seoul Times
Why Slumdog Fails to Move me by Soutik Biswas, BBC News
I will be interested to read Rushie’s criticism when there is more available than the vague allusions to his recent speech at Emory.