A rare word-of-mouth phenomenon, Slumdog Millionaire has captured the nation’s attention in the last few months. To me, the most impressive feat of this movie has been its ability to attract everyday Hollywood moviegoers to arthouse theaters to watch a foreign film. I am still a little mystified by the question: What about this movie has made it so universally appealing?
The plot of the film is a typical Hollywood story: a poor young man battles his destitute circumstances, seeks to change his luck, and chases after a beautiful woman. While the movie’s plot may be basic Hollywood fare, its style is not. In my mind, making this brutal and jarring style of filmmaking palatable to the American public is the Slumdog’s most surprising achievement. I found the film visually creative and even stunning. The poverty of Mumbai’s slums is strikingly uncomfortable, but the camera uncovers a life and vibrancy there that is innate to a place where human persons live, love, struggle, and die.
Slumdog tells the story of Jamal Malik, a teenager orphaned in the slums of Mumbai as a child. Although other characters call Jamal “slumdog” as an insult, the term takes on a quasi-triumphant meaning as his natural honesty and virtue raise him above the desperate circumstances the world and the corrupt social structure have given him.
Jamal spends his adolescent years trying to find Latika, an orphan girl he met as a child, in order to save her from a life of poverty and prostitution. In an effort to reach her, he becomes a contestant on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and finds by sheer luck that he knows the answers to all of the questions. The story of his life is told in flashback as the Mumbai police interrogate him, thinking he has cheated on the game show. Unraveling the story in this way, Slumdog builds drama and the sense of providence in Jamal’s life.
For those who have not made the trip already, Slumdog Millionaire is a film worth seeing. The onscreen violence may be too brutal for children or those with weak stomachs. I have heard the film praised for its realistic image of India’s slums, and I have also heard it criticized for artificially saving its characters from the cycle of poverty in a way that is unrealistic. In a time in our country when a trip to the movies provides escape from the uncertainties of life, perhaps this film’s widespread appeal is not such a mystery after all.