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.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Why Capitalism needs a Heart


Child with Guy Fawkes Mask

Normally, we do not link virtues like compassion and empathy with the notion of capitalism. It seems that within capitalism, there is not much room for benevolence, but capitalism has rather an ingrained and deeply embedded love and adoration for money, which is, in its extent and degree not unlike the awe and fascination with God when it comes to religion. The sheer existence and raison d'être of capitalism are the profits that are connected with it. Put differently, a capitalist who fails to make money is considered a loser, or worse, an utter failure.

That appears to be the root of most of the problems, and therein lies the root of evil essentially. It is not money itself, which is merely a tool and can be used for beneficial and compassionate purposes, but it is the undying love and reverence attached to it, which lurks its ugly head as corporate greed. Money becomes tainted and sullied with one's crass and grandiose ambitions, which often occur at the expense of one's own humanity.

To say that I do not appreciate, respect or even love money would be erroneous. To ask me -- or most of us -- to give it all away or to share it freely with others would be ranging from heroic deed to downright folly. Money especially if earned and accumulated by the sweat of the brow or by the works of wit and creativity is entirely a matter of entitlement.

However, my savings account pales in comparison with those who have more than million-fold their basic demands and necessities for various lifetimes down the road. My dream of one day owning four walls may merely remain that, namely a dream, but I would never dream of owning a yacht or my private jet. Now that to me seems outright folly.

Why you may ask. In the past, we have had millionaires or at the very top multi-millionaires. That seemed in itself quite a big deal, but now, even with inflation counted in, we have billionaires. This is an amount of money I cannot even imagine, let alone count or run through my hands. In fact, it is, by all means and standards, a ludicrous amount.

The question that I often ask myself is the following: How did these people become so filthy (to use a more benign f-word here) rich? In many cases, I am aware that it comes through hard work and perhaps with the right amount of luck, but still this must be someone's hard-earned money from somewhere. It is money tainted with sweat and worse, even blood.

It might be a factory worker working away all day for a fraction of a fraction, for a salary which may (or may not) help her to get by barely. These profits that show up on the rich person’s bank account may be a large chunk of someone's salary who is not starving but who has fallen into the consumerist trap of buying useless (and perhaps worthless) things to make him feel happy. That happiness literally comes at a cost and may only last for a little while, and it may give him something to brag about for a moment or two.

This is the situation and scenario in the most harmless or most ethical of cases. I will not go into cases where illegal or quasi-legal transactions or investments lead to (undeserved and unmerited) capitalist gain. Those are evidently seen as wrong, but our focus here is those legitimate businesses that squeeze profits by squeezing the general public's pockets.

This is how it is in the capitalist world; you may hear its proponents say. The rich get rich and the poor stay poor. The games and opportunities are open for anyone who takes a risk or who works hard enough. Even you can partake of the beautiful staple American dream if you only try hard (and long) enough.

But the game is rigged. The American dream is exactly that, namely a dream, if not a downright lie. In a capitalist system, there cannot be winners only. In a sport event it may be all about participating, but in capitalism the line is drawn quite clearly between the haves and the have-nots. You cannot have your cake and eat it too because the cake has already been eaten, including crumbs.

Here I would like to propose a solution to this dilemma. We could eradicate poverty in our city, country or even the world if those with more than nine figures to their name actually showed some heart. If they realized that money is not everything and that what they have gained through work or exploitation can be used for the benefit and happiness of others.

It angers me to see people not have enough, while others delve and swim in money substantially and significantly beyond their possible needs. Sure we could ask that everybody ought to give a hand to stop poverty or this type of injustice, but much more can be achieved by those who have more than necessary resources. If one day (and God bless the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets who are showing at least some initiative in this direction) the wealthy said we have more than enough and let us give away a large sum of our money to help others from starving and from suffering in their daily life because those states and situations are simply wrong and unacceptable.

In fact, let us change policies that benefit us only (I am speaking for the rich or rather in the name of the wealthy hypothetically speaking) and let us allow or better let us put pressure on politicians to pass laws that do not merely benefit the rich but laws that are truly fair and equitable. Let us give instead of taking because we have already taken more than we can handle in a single lifetime.

Recently, I attended an interesting and moving (or downright depressing) talk that dealt with issues of poverty. In that case, the solution was seen as treating poverty as a disease and to show the government that prevention was the best method. The speaker Gary Bloch, being a doctor and an activist knew what he was talking about both because of his profession and experience with working with the poor in Canada. He and others that evening suggested and demonstrated that by investing into poverty reduction, everyone would benefit; it even made sense economically as the government (and hence taxpayers) would eventually save money down the road. 
 
Although it would be a noble aim to act as conscious and compassionate citizens, all in all, that would be the proverbial drop on a hot stone. Each of us has responsibilities to change things for the better, of course. We want to become more ethical, more aware, more socially and politically active.

But instead of a bottom-up approach, saving pennies and making small adjustments, if we could only reach the very top and touch the hearts of those who have enough resources to make or break whole nations, then we could make even bigger strides. Let us add compassion and heart into the equation of capitalism and let us peel away from it all that is bad and harmful. We do not want to be left with a gaping and open wound and abyss between the top 1% and all the rest of us significantly down below.