Vox Nova At the Movies: Slumdog Millionaire

Vox Nova At the Movies: Slumdog Millionaire November 17, 2008

How can Jamal, a “slumdog,” that is, one of the uneducated orphans from the streets of India, get on “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” and win? That is the “simple” story behind Slumdog Millionaire. And it is the story we watch unfold as he explains how he was able to answer the questions to police officers brutally questioning him, trying to determine if he had found a way to cheat to win the game.


Even though it was filmed in India, Slumdog is no Bollywood film; the only song-and-dance routine is had at the end, during the closing credits. Obviously Danny Boyle, the director, understood people would be expecting one, and he didn’t want to leave the audience wanting. But that is as far as he goes within the Bollywood genre. The film is dirty and gritty; a mix between Dickens and Scorsese. 

We find out it was the rough life that Jamal has had which prepared him for his time on “Millionaire.” But throughout it all, Jamal had never been beat by the system. Those around him might have, but he did not. His older brother, Salim, at first provided the ground on which Jamal affirmed his existence. But Salim was not like his sibling. Salim believed he needed to do whatever it took to keep him and his brother afloat. At first, it did not cost him anything; but through the years, it slowly led him to do worse and worse actions, until he gets involved with the local gangster, doing whatever his boss required him to do. Judging how it came about, one can understand how he fell into that situation and feel sorry for him, even if, in the end, he is still guilty for much of the evil he does in the film. He learned to survive by being street tough while Jamal did not, and one can say it was possibly because of his elder status that he was not afforded the luxuries of his younger brother. 

We find out how the two came to live on the streets after their mother was killed by a mob of Hindu nationalists; at first, they live together barely making it on their own, but they manage to do so (in a rather humorous way), and form a close bond because of it. Then, one rainy night, Jamal sees a young girl, Latika, looking for shelter, and, despite his brother’s protest, he lets her in to his makeshift shelter. From that time, Jamal has taken her into his heart and believes that it is his destiny to be with her. 

Throughout the movie, we are shown the situations the three found themselves in. It is rarely pleasant, and indeed, filled with much sorrow. Despite it, Jamal is always directing himself and his actions for the sake of Latika, even when it appears he should have no reason to believe he will see her again. Salim, through the influences of his gangster friends, becomes selfish, but, in the midst of it all, always feels remorse for what he has been led to do. Latika becomes the wedge between the two, at first, because of Salim’s dislike for her company, and later, as they grow older, and  Latika blossoms forth as a beautiful young woman, Salim one night lusts after her, and he forces himself upon her in a way that Jamal cannot do anything about (indeed, he is forced to leave by gunpoint, and Latika, caring for Jamal, pleads for him to leave for the sake of his life). It is only at the end where Salim tries to make amends for what he has done. Is it too late? And was it moral?  That is for the viewer to decide. 

While there is, on one level, a rather simple story, the story of Jamal and how he won at Millionaire, it is also so much more. It is a story which makes sense within India, but, in the West would otherwise appear too coincidental. Why were the questions all geared to events which had happened in Jamal’s life? And how was he so sure that he would, in the end, get the girl? The answer to that question is given at the end. 

Often loud, depressing, and violent, because of the brutal life that orphans end up having on the streets of India, the movie earned its R rating. But that is not the whole of the film. It is, despite all the tragedy, a comedy as well, one which does make the audience laugh, and it is those moments which help move the film beyond Scorsese territory and become one of its own. It’s a film worth seeing at least once. I am not sure well it would stack up for repeated viewings, but, something tells me it just might. 

3 ½ stars / 5.

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