Slumdog Millionaire: “It Is Written"

Slumdog Millionaire is, without question, one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It’s well structured, the music and the cinematography blend to create an energetic, just-short-of-chaotic whole, and the acting raises the story above a mere rags-to-riches tale. It also, to me, presents some interesting possibilities about God’s role in shaping human lives.

Slumdog Millionaire is centered around approximately two days in the life of Jamal Malik, a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. As a chaiwalla (basically a gofer who brings tea to the workers at a telephone company’s call center) who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, Jamal hardly seems the type to know the answers to the wide-ranging quiz questions. But, as even the film’s trailer will tell you, Jamal’s life experiences have prepared him to answer questions like “Whose face is on the U.S. $100 bill?”, even though he couldn’t tell, if asked, whose face is on Indian currency. Chance? According to Jamal, it’s “destiny.” Or, as he says at another moment in the film, there’s no reason behind his success other than “It is written.”

The very few negative reviews I’ve seen of Slumdog Millionaire critique the film’s portrait of poverty, comparing it to Oliver! or Les Mis, in which cute little urchins sing and dance about picking pockets. Think Christian has already written an insightful post on this topic, so instead I’ll focus on how the film presents this theme of “destiny”—and how it compares to a Christian view of how God acts in individual lives.

This theme may particularly strike me because I’ve had the kind of year where, for a few months of uncertainty about my future, people seemed to enjoy telling me, “God has a plan.” Now, I do believe that God has a plan, and that he is in control, and that we can entrust our futures to him. But, just after I’ve been turned down for a job, “God has a plan” is not the first thing that I want to hear. Nor do I want to be pointed to Jeremiah 29:11. Such intended reassurances make me feel, even though I know it’s not the case, that God’s plan entails him willing bad things to happen to me.

In retrospect, I can look back at the events of the past year and see the miraculous and intricate pattern that led to two very good jobs and a warm, pleasant relocation for my husband and me. However, rather than pointing to a specific disappointment and saying, “God allowed this to happen so that this better thing could come along,” I’d rather just sit back and celebrate the mystery of how God can bring good out of whatever circumstances we endure.

Wisely, Slumdog Millionaire is structured in a way that celebrates the mystery of divine design (I say “divine” from my perspective; Jamal seems to be a nominal Muslim, and he never attributes “destiny” to the actions of God). The film begins right after Jamal’s first appearance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, with Jamal being interrogated by Mumbai police who believe that he must be cheating. As they replay the video of the show, question by question, we see, in flashbacks, the events that led to Jamal’s knowledge of the answers. Some of the events are picaresque, involving ripping off European tourists at the Taj Mahal. Others are tragic, such as the death of Jamal’s mother in an anti-Muslim riot. (Can you imagine if someone had told Jamal, at this juncture, “God has a plan”?)

The movie doesn’t blithely assert that all these things have happened just so that Jamal could win 20 million rupees. In fact, just before giving the correct answer corresponding to something he learned the day of his mother’s death, Jamal says, “Every day I wake up wishing I didn’t know the answer to that question.” Slumdog Millionaire does not dismiss real human pain in its exploration of “destiny.”

The movie also leaves the issue of human free will up to interpretation. A design-less world solely based on human actions is not sufficient to explain why Jamal ends up prepared to answer the specific questions asked of him on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. However, Jamal’s unsullied character also affects the course of his life: his devotion to finding Latika, a girl he knew as a child, motivates him to appear on the show. Noble decisions on the part of other characters also affect the course of events. (There’s certainly a suggestion, though, that at least one of these noble decisions may be motivated by a renewed religious commitment, so the film also leaves open the possibility that human decisions may be divinely guided.)

Jamal’s impersonal “destiny” is, of course, different from the involvement of a personal God in human lives—note the passive voice in the phrase “It is written,” refusing to name a subject who has done the writing. However, I think Christians—and Protestants especially, who since the days of the Puritans have been obsessed with the interpretation of God’s role in personal experience—can still learn something from the wonder with which Slumdog Millionaire views the design of our lives.

About Carrisa Smith
  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    I found it interesting that the trailer for Slumdog Millionaire places the emphasis on a more general kind of providence than the actual movie does. While both movie and trailer present the multiple choices for answering the question of how Jamal has made it so far in the game, and both present the options A) He cheated, B) He’s lucky, and C) He’s a genius, the answer for D) differs. The trailer uses D) It is destiny, while the film uses D) It is written.

    The latter is a much more deeply religious answer and is the answer that the film promotes.

    “It is written” implies not only divine authorship of the strains of life, but presents the idea that the author of the writing is a rewarder of those who seek the author. Jamal clearly believes in God (even if he doesn’t follow Muslim practices with much vigor—he’s kind of like Lewis’ Calormene/Pigmy-in-Africa) and is certain that God is going to work all this out in such a way that a happy conclusion is necessary. He doesn’t stop to consider the breadth of his God’s writing and how if it ordains his happiness, it must also ordain the tragedies his happiness is founded upon—but he clearly believes this is more than just the soulless grinding forth of some deterministic clockwork destiny or the blind skein-weaving of Norns.

    The trailer, I think, wishes to downplay the religious aspect of the film in order to Not Scare potential filmgoers.
    _________________________________

    To a topic unrelated to Slumdog but related to your post: reacting to God’s plan.

    While you are not the most happy with those who will cite God’s supremacy over his creation as a bid to comfort you in the midst of your difficulties and, perhaps, suffering, I personally find such reminders essential. When difficult circumstances arise in my life (e.g. personal tragedies, death, the brink of poverty, etc.), I do my best to remember that all these things, good and ill, play role in the greater pageant of God’s written history of all creation and that All Things Work for the Good of Those Who Believe. If repeated mindlessly, such sentiments are trite and smack of “Aw, it’ll be alright” syrupy lies. But, if I am truly anguishing over my circumstance, then all signs are pointing toward me both forgetting my place in the world and forgetting God has ordained these things to pass as they have and that he has promised me (through his Word) that all of this works for my benefit, the benefit of all other believers, and for the benefit of his name and kingdom.

    And if I have forgotten or am disbelieving that such is the case, then I am perpetrating blaspheme and need to be quickly reminded what’s what.

    So when I get those knowing sympathies from people reminding me that God has a plan or that All things work for good, I make active use of the reminder by preaching it to my soul—no matter whether the original advice was deeply intended or mere trite regurgitation.
    _________________________________

    Also, you say: “Such intended reassurances make me feel, even though I know it’s not the case, that God’s plan entails him willing bad things to happen to me.”

    What makes you think that God’s plan doesn’t entail him willing bad things to happen to you? God seems to will bad things to happen to the righteous all over the Bible. Take, for instance, Jesus. Or for a less robust example, Paul’s declaration that suffering is good because that is how God intends us to grow in hope and strength.

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • http://www.aaronhall.com/ Minnesota Attorney

    You presented a thought-provoking analysis of Slumdog Millionaire. As you stated, the movie raises a number of complex questions about life and destiny, leaving observers to ponder these questions in their own lives.

    Minnesota Attorneys last blog post..Minnesota S Corp Attorney

  • mike

    See, I thought by written, it meant that he actually got the last question of the Three Musketeers wrong. And the author was the host or the people in charge of the show, giving him the money regardless of getting the question right or wrong.

  • http://acholibeads.com Jan Whitehouse

    I’ve been mulling over, from a Reformed perspective, the lessons “Slumdog Millionaire” offer us, and have been contrasting it with “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Both are, to use the hackneyed expression, “life-affirming,” but I find myself, curiously, regarding “Slumdog” as being, of the two, more compatible with the gospel of Christ and having a slightly more skeptical eye toward the beloved “It’s a Wonderful Life,” even though it will always be a favorite.

    In short, “Wonderful Life,” starring the unanimously sympathetic Jimmy Stewart as the even more sympathetic George Bailey, is set up as a masterful example of a fellow who finds favor with God by means of a series of good works. This is detailed in the pre-angelic bestowal “orientation” Clarence receives as George’s deeds are recounted, telling us, the audience, how meritorious his selflessness is.

    The power of prayer is affirmed in “Wonderful Life,” but the nature of the prayers themselves, you’ll no doubt recall, follow along the lines of imploring God to help George because of what a good guy he is. This is a message that continues to resonate with nearly all of us, myself included, because such teaching is supportive of our reflexive sense of personal merit as justice, which I would argue, is an outgrowth of our national obsession with self-sufficiency – “God helps those who help themselves.”

    “It’s a Wonderful Life,” therefore, marvelous as it is, is more a reflection of our civil religion rather than an explication of redemption as laid out in the Bible.

    “Slumdog” has no such good-guy-gets-ahead-because-he’s-nice conceit. The young man sits in the game show chair that is the site of both judgment (not to mention his interrogation!) and review of his life and he steadfastly denies a claim to good works, knowledge, or personal character — his only plea is “it is written.”

    For the Christian, there is a powerful lesson: in EVERY circumstance in which our protagonist was placed, God had an overt and specific purpose, as evidenced by the memories triggered by the game show questions. At the crucial moment when circumstance, worldly support (e.g., “phone-a-friend”) failed him, his quietly confident declaration of “it is written” served as a vindication for those of us who are truly relying on God for our very sustenance.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Déjà vu?

    The Danes last blog post..20081119.ChurchLies

  • http://acholibeads.com Jan Whitehouse

    Hey – gosh. Sorry for the duplication – guess I’ve been making Christian/popcult forum rounds and posted in this blog post not realizing the other Slumdog discussion on these pages…

    My.Bad.

    - J

    Jan Whitehouses last blog post..Business Will Change the World

  • anon

    Just watched Slumdog and when I saw it I immediately recognized the phrase “it is written”.

    Rather than a passage from the gospel of Matthew, I think this is actually a reference to the arabic expression “Maktub”, which, translated into English, is literally “it is written”, although in The Alchemist, the author maintains that his word has no direct english equivalent.

    It’s basically the idea that destiny can exist even within free will. Right when Jamal met with Latika at the end he said “it was our destiny” or something along those lines, which was followed shortly by the “It is written” screen. I took it to mean that no matter what things happened during their lives, the end result was going to be the same, so it is written. Maktub.

  • STL55

    So Christianity shares with Islam a belief that God has written each person’s fate. It is all destiny. Each person’s complete life on this earth is known by God. How comforting to know that in the end, nothing’s your fault and that the terrible things in this world are simply God’s will – who knows why – but at least He does. These beliefs allow followers to abdicate responsibility for themselves and others, and also to hold themselves above the less fortunate because after all, it’s all God’s will. Look at me – I’m better off than you – God must like me better. Look at me – striving to get by in a good way – whatever happens, it’s God’s will! Yes, I’ll through the unfortunate a crumb here and there, but it’s written! Sucks for you!

  • Pingback: Fate and Free Will at the Movies « FemmeFuel

  • Christian Gelles

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  • Timmy

    LOL

    you guys are overstating the influence of Christianity in India

    Christian ideals are a minority in India and defintely not apparent in everyday life

    It is written is a reference to Sanskrit tecxt involved with Hinduism/Buddhism

    I am actually AMAZED Christ said it is written as well

    More proof that Christ did in fact travel and learn in India


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