Life as a Game Show: Reading Slum-Dog Millionaire

Further complicating the film's swirl of ethnic, religious, and national identities, Slumdog, though officially British-made, is also a very Indian film faithful to the Bollywood aesthetic formula. It produces a number of rasa, "tastes," in the viewer: heroism, humor, disgust, eros, fear, and tranquility. The final dance scene on the train platform pays homage to the familiar Bollywood genre. The musical score crackles with energy.

There are any number of reasons why Slumdog has emerged as a favorite among American audiences. Perhaps the Oscar nominations reflected India's rise as a global economic power, as well as a cinematic one. And, while the story is set in India, there is something familiar to American audiences about the kid who finds his way to success and love through struggle in an indifferent world. As an audience we are cheering him on. As unlikely as the story is -- a fairy tale -- we are caught up in the hope that the prince will not give up and will find his love at last. There is an echo for some with the story of our young prince in the White House, who came from obscurity, got the princess, and won the grand prize. The Obama story, to some at least, has a similar "it is written" quality about it.

Perhaps the film holds a special appeal these days as many Americans reckon with a financial vulnerability long familiar to those in the developing world. Globalization has elicited a new sense of kinship, a feeling Slumdog successfully evokes. Life seems more like a game show where you can walk out with a million bucks or nothing. Jamal emerges as a kind of postmodern Everyman. We hurt for him, root for him, and recognize ourselves in him.

There is also an important way in which the film may mark a move into a new kind of "global cinema." Mumbai is a global city with some seventeen million residents -- rich and poor. Like other so-called third world cities, it has the contrasts of wealth and poverty, aspiration and corruption, glitz and grime. It's not just "third-world," of course: one could imagine making the story of Jamal in Los Angeles, Chicago, Tokyo, or London.

As I have digested the film I've begun to see that its theological "message" -- that "it is written," a theology that breaks out of narrow sectarian constraints and offers itself to the world in ways that allow multiple translations -- is powerful and important. Being written - destiny -- is not the same as passive acceptance. Jamal's sense of destiny does not lead him to resignation; it energizes him. His devotion to Latika provides him a polestar that enables him to navigate through the turbulent waters of the postmodern city.

As far as the complaint that the movie rehashes a negative image of India, I have to disagree. The slums and corruption are a part of India, even an India Shining. But, slums and corruption are everywhere; poverty and organized crime are artifacts of robust global capitalism. The movie's important achievement to this viewer, one who has been to India many times, is the heroic spirit and devotion that Everyman Jamal displays as he confronts the game show of life.


This article was first published at Religion Dispatches, a Patheos Partner, and is reprinted with permission.

Paul Courtright, a professor of religious studies at Emory University, studies Hindu religious traditions and is the author of Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings (Oxford) and co-editor, with Lindsey Harlan, of From the Margins of Hindu Marriage (Oxford).

3/2/2010 5:00:00 AM