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.