Life follows art. A medium budget British film with an all-Indian cast about an orphaned street urchin winning at life against all odds, wins eight Oscars including Best Picture. Bernice and I went to see it last night. For two hours we were confronted with a world that we know nothing about. We are a middle class couple living fairly comfortable lives in Singapore. We knew that we were watching a movie but the realities portrayed were real enough. There is a world out there where millions live in crushing poverty. And few have the fairy tale ending of the Jamal character. Sudip Mazumdar of Newsweek, who grew up in a Kolkata slum, writes:
People keep praising the film’s realistic depiction of slum life in India. There is no such thing. Slum life is a cage. It steals your pride, deadens your ambition, limits your imagination and psychologically cripples you. Most people in slums never achieve a fairy-tale ending. (“Man Bites Slumdog,” Newsweek International Edition, March 2, 2009, 24)
The movie establishes the destructive nature of abject poverty. There is a scene where the two boys, newly orphaned, take shelter from torrential monsoon rains in a discarded container — and the main female character, Latika, also orphaned, is out in the cold till Jamal arranges for her to join the boys in the container. It is dark and they are lost. All they have is each other.
The movie asks, since poverty is so destructive, can we blame folks for doing whatever they can to get out of it? Like working the unearthly hours demanded of call centres? Or even turning to a life of crime? This is the central question of the movie and why I feel it is the older brother, Salim, who has the meatier role. Jamal is an Indian Forrest Gump who builds his life around a touching but naive love for the orphan girl he befriended as a child. It is Salim who has to make the tough choices pertaining to their survival.
Throughout the movie, Salim vacillates Gollum-like between good and evil. Having known many two brother pairings myself, the love/competitive relationship between Salim and Jamal rings true. There are times when Salim bullies Jamal. Salim’s worst betrayal was taking Latika from Jamal. Yet time and time again Salim saves Jamal, like when he risks everything to help Jamal escape from having his eyes blinded.
So while the movie focuses on Jamal — will he get the money and live happily ever after with Latika — my heart was with Salim. What will he do in the end? Will he be saved?
In the end he gives his life so that Jamal and Latika may live. It seems we cannot run too far from the Cross-principle. Someone has to pay the price for there to be happy endings. Salim frees Latika to go to Jamal knowing that it would cost him his life. He even asks Latika to forgive him for all that he inflicted on her. We cheer. And our heart breaks. He dies in a bath tub of money. Salim was dirt poor. Now he is rich and powerful. But in the end he realises that it is not enough. He dies with the cry: “God is good!” There is a hint of a smile on his face. He dies knowing that he has brought happiness to Jamal and Latika.
Slumdog Millionaire does not romanticise poverty. At one point Jamal asks Latika to run away with him. This is the exchange:
Jamal: Come away with me.
Latika: Chutiye. Away where? What can you provide? What have you got, Jamal?
No, we can’t live on love and fresh air. But neither can we make the pursuit of money the primary goal of life. As Jesus taught us:
Then he told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”‘
But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’
Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God. (Luke 12:16-21 NLT)]
And you don’t have to be a poor street urchin to make the pursuit of money the number one goal in life. One test of whether money is the main goal of our lives is whether we are able to give it away, being able to be “rich in good works and generous to those in need, always … ready to share with others (1Timothy 6:18b NLT).”
As we left the movie theatre, “Jai Ho,” was ringing in my ears but my heart resonated with this question: “What am I doing for the poor?”