The film Slumdog Millionaire tells the story of two boys, Jamal and his older brother Salim, and a girl, Latika, growing up in Bombay/Mumbai. Most of the reviews I’ve read laud it as an overcoming of impossible odds, two star-cross’d lovers separated by circumstances and reunited by destiny. But I’m not sure how many odds are really overcome: this is not so much a story of triumphing over circumstances as finding ways to be alive in the middle of circumstances which cause others to merely exist. A story of different ways in which we might choose to make the most of injustice; and what happens when those different ways collide.
The central character is Jamal, who occupies a space in-between conventional hero and anti-hero (i.e. a main character in a narrative who lacks traditionally heroic characteristics) roles, overlapping both. He is at once both callow and streetwise. He has a child’s strong sense of right and wronged; his undiminished sense of wonder gets under the skin of the viewer. On various occasions, his life is saved by the more jaded actions of both Salim and Latika – though he is condemned to suffer the bitter consequences of their actions – but ultimately it is arguably Jamal who saves both Salim and Latika from themselves, who brings his fellow ‘musketeers’ to their senses through his determination, and very public humiliation. Add to this his unjustified torture, strung up, electrocuted, and here is one of cinemas sacrificial, penal-substitution atonement, saviours.
Jamal’s complexity questions our moral values. Is it wrong for a hungry child, who has no grown up he can trust to care for him, to steal food? Or to take advantage of India’s official tourism industry? Is it wrong to fail to report to corrupt police that your brother has murdered a man who buys children’s trust for a bottle of coke, only to mutilate them so that they can earn him more by begging, or send them into prostitution? Are our western sensibilities, even those still dressed-up as Judeo-Christian tradition in an increasingly post-Christian society, simply an expression of the luxury of being the Haves in the world?
Jamal’s older brother Salim is his foil, occupying a space in-between anti-hero and petty villain. Whereas wonder gets Jamal through the world more-or-less intact, Salim understands the world, knows that corrupt power is preferable to impotence. Are the differences between Salim and Jamal expressions of different character; or degree? The ways in which Salim looks out for himself are perhaps more extreme; but both boys look out for their own interests, with passion and drive; and both boys, in their own ways, also look out for the interests of those they feel a responsibility towards or affinity to. Perhaps these brothers are closer than they would recognise. In the end, having recognised his shortcomings before God, it is Salim who seeks redemption through doing what he can in order for Jamal and Lakita to be reunited.
Is it always wrong to kill somebody? Or is there a difference between a prohibition against murder, as a bulwark against social breakdown and in a society that is charged with caring for the widow, the orphan and the alien; and the taking of a life as natural justice, where natural justice is the only justice available?
Latika is Jamal’s muse. From the moment she first appears, standing out in the monsoon rain silently but persistently asking for shelter, she stands just outside of Jamal’s world, making his experience incomplete without her. The child Jamal extends care, protection, and in return for this simple but profound gift Latika will give herself for his life. On three different occasions, as a child, a young teenager and a young woman, she sacrifices herself, her own happiness with Jamal, and so doing secures his survival. Is her motive love, or fear; fear that her failure to run will jeopardise his escape, fear that things will go worse for her if she does not give in; or all of the above? In time, her choices mould her life: they win wealth, if not love; and who, from the slums of Mumbai, can live on love alone? For a time, love is too big a cost. Only Jamal’s determination, and Salim’s intervention, will eventually secure her release.
In the final analysis, all three characters need the other two. Knowing only the first two names, and without having read the book, they truly fulfil the musketeers’ motto, All for One, and One for All…