Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fate and Destiny in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire

Questions on fate and love
The movie Slumdog Millionaire (2008) directed by British director Danny Boyle has achieved that rare feat of satisfying film critics and audiences alike. It is one of the best works of this very talented director. However, upon my first viewing, I was not as enthusiastic about the film. I had been somewhat impressed with it in terms of editing and its magnificent energy boosted by a great soundtrack, but I had erroneously dismissed it as another successful crowd-pleaser. I had brushed it off as light entertainment and did not fully understand the critical hype around this film, which included winning an outstanding eight Oscars (incidentally more than one of my all-time favorite films, the brilliant classic Lawrence of Arabia made by David Lean in 1962).

So what made me change my mind about Slumdog Millionaire? I think although the movie does well on a number of levels and layers, I had not fully appreciated the intricacy of its script, that is, its philosophical premise and weight. It had struck me as a fairy tale albeit interspersed with moments of unflinching but restrained brutality involving torture and other traumatic experiences. To my defense, this movie is such a genre bender -- drama, action, romance, you name it -- and has a lot of glitz and dazzle so that one can miss out on how intricate the philosophical message is.

First off, this movie is rare in the sense that it is spoiler-proof. I cannot really give away anything here. While the ending may be predictable, it is still poignant; in fact, I was even more moved the second time around than when I first saw this gem.

Basically the main premise is this: A young man Jamal who has suffered a great deal in life enters the Indian version of the “Who wants to be a millionaire” contest and somehow despite his lack of education knows all the correct answers. This arouses suspicion among the authorities, and the young man is accused of cheating.

But the key to his success lies in his past. It seems that all his life has oddly enough only served this main purpose, namely to prepare him for the show that would turn him into a millionaire. Boyle has made other movies that involved suddenly and surprisingly attaining loads of cash in both Shallow Grave (1994) and the surprisingly heartwarming, moving and funny Millions (2004), but in the case of Slumdog Millionaire the money is used as an excuse or mere pretext; it serves as the young man's desperate but determined plan and means of getting the girl of his dreams Latika.

Jamal's life story is told in flashbacks and in direct relation to the posed questions on the popular game show (the novel this movie is based on is entitled Q & A and makes this link somewhat clearer). For example, Jamal knows the name of an Indian movie star because he fought hard to get his autograph. Jamal's mean-spirited brother locked him inside an outhouse, but the resourceful boy manages to escape underneath and shows up all covered in feces (I read on IMDb it was actually peanut butter mixed with chocolate). So he eventually asks for the long-awaited and much desired autograph. From the beginning of his life, we can see he is determined and obstinate in getting what he wants.

More interestingly, he knows which US president is portrayed on the 100 dollar bill because of his own heartfelt and sincere generosity. Jamal gives money to a blind boy who tells him that it is Ben Franklin's face that can be found on the bill. Had Jamal not decided to give him the money, he would never have known the answer to that question. So in a way, it is pure karma that is preserved then and passed on. Our ethical and generous actions may not be immediately rewarded, but they will be in due time and course.

Although a lot of the answers to the questions bring up painful memories, including his mother's senseless and brutal slaughter during a religious riot, it seems that everything was predetermined, in other words, fate. I love the idea that everything that happens to us, no matter how good or bad serves a distinct and distinctive purpose. We may not see and understand it in the heat or burning suffering of the moment, but it seems part of a larger plan of the cosmos, the eventual fulfillment of the Logos.

It is this realization that made me embrace this film with my whole heart. It so happens that when two people find each other, in this case our star-crossed lovers Jamal and Latika, it was all meant to happen and every detail in the movie and in life in general may be nothing but a footnote towards this one moment of bliss. So it happens in romance when people meet their soul-mates sometimes seemingly against all odds.

But the overall outlook is not a mere waiting for good things to fall into your lap, but to always make it happen. There were many times where Jamal could have merely given up or taken the easy way out. But he did not. Even at the very last where he is unfairly tortured, he keeps holding onto his dreams, his driving force of hope.

And it seems that all this time, even if it seemed otherwise at certain desolate moments, fortune, or call it luck or destiny had always been smiling and winking at him. Hence the final embrace and yes even the dance number give us a warm tingling feeling that deep down regardless of its rough and tough surface everything is all right and immensely beautiful and simply divine.


Vincent said...

Thanks for posting this, Arash. I had forgotten the plot of this enjoyable film; and certainly see now what you mean about its more philosophical message: "that everything that happens to us, no matter how good or bad serves a distinct and distinctive purpose. We may not see and understand it in the heat or burning suffering of the moment, but it seems part of a larger plan of the cosmos, the eventual fulfillment of the Logos."

This got me thinking of another author who touched on such ideas, which might get lost in the playfulness of his prose and plot-lines: Douglas Adams. I think many examples could be brought up but here are three at random, and from unchecked memory:

1) The Earth (or perhaps human life) is an experiment being conducted upon human beings by laboratory mice. (Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy)

2) the spaceship which hovers above Lord's Cricket Ground, invisible to the thousands there because it doesn't make sense. He calls this phenomenon an SEP - Somebody Else's Problem. (Hitch-hiker's Guide, from another volume in the series)

3) The malodorous tramps who congregate at night around King's Cross Station, constantly being shooed off benches by railway staff, are in reality Immortals, waiting to be summoned to the Great Hall of Valhalla, where they will feast and listen to a challenge by Thor to his father Odin (who is also the All-Father).
(From The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, a Dirk Gently adventure)

Vincent said...

Furthermore, the part of your post I've italicized in the above comment will neatly fit in to something I plan to write about in my next. Thanks again

Arash Farzaneh said...

Thanks, Vincent for pointing out those parallels, which I had not known about. In fact, I have a confession to make: I have never read the Hitchhiker's Guide! But now you have got me interested, and I will definitely check it out!

Yes, feel free to quote me freely and look forward to reading your post on it!