Slumdog Millionaire

As we stepped out of the theatre into the dark of another Delhi evening, we were quickly reminded by our surroundings that this time the world on the screen was not far from the reality in which we presently live. This is India, in all its glory and shame. This is where children from the slums are exploited in horrible ways and also where people overcome the odds and reach the heights of success to become shining examples of the human spirit. It is arguably not unlike any other place on earth in this basic sense, but somehow the agonies and ecstasies of India are the stuff that makes for great stories, and great films.  

We really didn’t know what to expect from Slumdog Millionaire, except that it was critically acclaimed and quickly gaining popularity worldwide. We hadn’t read any reviews. None. We knew the film was something about a kid from the slums of Mumbai.

As the movie got going, we were gripped by the story and the graphic portrayal of abuse in the lives of several children from the slum. To say that we could identify with the characters would be too much, but because we live in Delhi we can at least say that we felt closer to the story. Every day of our lives here, we look into the eyes of kids like those in the movie. Though we are not involved directly in working with these kids, we try to love them and we support those who do work with them. We have hope for them, and we’ve heard the stories of transformation. In fact, as I write, I’m reminded of one young man that we know here in our area that comes from a slum nearby and, thanks to his own motivation and the help of others and the grace of God, he has experienced some radical changes in his life. Though it probably won’t make the silver screen, his story is also an inspiration.

The story of Slumdog Millionaire is so inspiring because it deals with a number of themes that touch our hearts, but especially the triumph of an undying love. At the core of this story is Jamal’s stubborn love for Latika. They are two slum-dwellers who connect in the midst of tragedy early in their lives but are separated soon after. Whereas Jamal and his elder brother, Salim, flee from their oppressors and make it on their own, Latika is taken into slavery. The driving force of the narrative, then, is Jamal’s refusal to forget Latika and his plan of salvation to be reunited with her. He comes back for her and not only saves her but wins a million in the process. In the end, they have each other, and the money. It’s sensational. It’s a movie. But it’s hard not to cheer.

Everyone wants to be loved like Latika was loved by Jamal. Everyone wants to win a million too, but the need for love is even greater. The film effectively communicates that Jamal’s prize was Latika herself and not the millions. The TV game show that he gets on is only a vehicle to get her back, and the winnings are merely a bonus. The brief phone call that the two have, before the last question is answered, confirms that their relationship is being restored, despite the fact that they don’t know the answer to the question. But neither of them really seems to care about the question or the money – they care about their relationship. It’s beautiful, and we would all do well to embrace the same priorities.

After the movie, I could not help but think that Jamal’s love for Latika is not unlike God’s love for us. It’s very similar to the love story that the Bible tells. We are, like Latika, in bondage, and the coming of Jesus is God’s plan of salvation. The love of God for humankind is unconditional and undying. Just like Jamal could not forget his lover, God cannot forget us. Just like Jamal did what it took to win her back, God has done that for us in Jesus Christ. We are all loved by God, yet each of us has our own story. Just like Jamal pursued Latika, God is pursuing us, convincing us about his love.

As the movie closes with Jamal and Latika in loving embrace, I participated willingly in the sense of celebration and resolution that the story intimates. Movies are especially good at projecting the happily ever after sentiment. But I also found myself thinking about the practical implications of this love. I may have been over-thinking it, but it's hard not to imagine how screwed up this woman must have been after all the abuse she had suffered. The movie gives us glimpses into the sordid world where she was enslaved, where horrible men manipulated and mistreated her. We can only imagine how much damage and disorder this would have brought to her life. Jamal loves her, but does he know what that love will require? 

Added to this is the fact that Latika is far less developed as a character in the movie, especially in comparison to Jamal. By the end of the movie, I felt like I had really gotten to know Jamal and I was quite caught up in wishing him the best. Although he obviously felt a deep bond with Latika, I wondered at times in the story if he would have been better off to forget her and to find another woman.

Relationships are complicated and I’m not a counselor.

Again, the movie really worked for me because it made me think. I had to compare this story with my own. In my relationship with God, I’m Latika, the undeserving, messed-up recipient of tenacious devotion. Why am I special to God? Is it because of my faithfulness? How many times would God have been justified to forget me and look for another lover? I don’t deserve God’s love, but he loves me anyway. My heart melts in the presence of that love, and I am not only grateful to receive it but I am also inspired to give it, to my family, my friends, my enemies, and to every slumdog that God brings into my life.

Which brings us to the question of what inspired Jamal’s affection for Latika. Where did he find such an incredible capacity for love? After all, he’s a slumdog.

Apparently, some people have been offended by the use of such a derogatory term. Personally, I don’t have trouble with it. In fact, it’s a part of what makes the movie tick. Jamal is the underdog that people love to see climb their way to the top. He’s the unlikely hero that we identify with in his weakness and frailty. Whether we like to admit it or not, we all have flaws and things in our lives that disadvantage us. One of Jamal’s limitations was where he was from. Within his context, it was a great obstacle to overcome. It wasn’t all bad, of course, and it may have even uniquely equipped him for his later achievement. But the idea is clear that Jamal remembered where he was from. And as he scales the heights of success, the wonder of it all is magnified because he stays humble and focused, and thus, likeable. The guy with nothing gets it all. But it’s the way he does it that pleases the audience. Humility is attractive.

This whole idea of identity also strikes a chord with what the Bible teaches us in terms of how to view ourselves, that we are sinners, saved by grace. Despite our gravest sins and blatant shortcomings, we are loved and blessed beyond what we could imagine. Like the first line of that beloved hymn, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” In measured ways, we gladly use derogatory terms for ourselves to emphasize the depth of God’s love and the extent of the blessings we have received from him. In that way, we could say that we are not only all slumdogs before God, but in Christ, we are all slumdog millionaires

If that sounds tacky in some way, please forgive me. But this is sincerely where my mind took me in the wake of the movie. And that has always been a very simple and personal means for me to gauge the success of a movie – to understand how it made me think and feel.

There is certainly a lot more to Slumdog Millionaire than this, but even for what I’ve outlined here, I would call it a great success. And I wish it well at the upcoming Oscars!

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