Under pressure, game show contestants lose their minds a little.
The bright lights burn away years of education. The cameras sap nimble thinking. The watching eyes of millions turn minds mushy, tongues tardy, fingers feeble. One former contestant tells me that absolute certainties offstage become flip-of-the-coin guesses on it. They don’t call Who Wants to Be a Millionaire‘s contestant chair the “hot seat” for nothing.
In India’s version of Millionaire (at least in this fictional film) countless players have disintegrated in the show’s pressurized kiln. No contestant has come close to claiming the 20 million rupee grand prize (a little more than $400,000 in U.S. currency).
Now, suddenly, Jamal Malik—an uneducated 18-year-old from the slums of Mumbai—is on the verge of history. He rattles off answer after answer to improbable, impossible questions: What does the Hindu god Rama hold in his right hand? Whose face is on the American $100 bill? What cricket player has scored the most centuries?
Is Jamal immune to the pressure? Maybe. Jamal’s lived under pressure since he was born. He’s lived in landfills, bartered for food, stolen shoes and waded through raw sewage. Hot seat? Big whoop.
Still, the fact that Jamal knows the answers is uncanny, and before he’s asked the final question, the young man is whisked away by police on suspicion of fraud: They beat and torture him, trying to get him to confess. They nearly kill him.
“What the h— can a slumdog possibly know?” the police wonder aloud.
Jamal spits out a stream of blood. “I knew the answers,” he says.
And with that, he begins to recount the story of his childhood—how the answer to each question was braided into his past. Rama holds a bow: Jamal remembers because he saw an image of Rama the day his mother was killed. Ben Franklin graces the $100 bill: Jamal remembers because he once gave a $100 bill to a blind boy, who asked him to describe the face as a way of authenticating the currency. Each step in his life seems to have specifically prepped him to win big-time game show money.
Only Jamal doesn’t want cash. He’s hoping the love of his life is watching TV so the two can, at long last, be reunited.
Much of Jamal’s life has been spent searching for Latika, his childhood friend and adulthood love. Jamal loses her several times but always finds her again—a loving pursuit that has a spiritual echo. Theirs is a chaste affair, and he’s the very model of chivalry: When she needs a towel after a shower, he gives her one with his eyes squinched shut. And after Latika’s face is disfigured by a knife, Jamal gently kisses the scars.
Salim is far less honorable than his younger brother. Indeed, he’s a cold-blooded killer and, in many respects, the film’s most tangible villain. But he also loves his brother. And he saves Jamal and Latika several times. When an orphanage director plots to blind young Jamal, Salim engineers a getaway. He gives Jamal a place to stay, even after Jamal punches him in the face for past misdeeds. And, when Jamal appears on Millionaire hoping to reconnect with Latika—now a kept woman for Salim’s boss, a notorious gangster—Salim gives Latika the keys to his car and encourages her to escape, knowing she’ll never have another chance.
Jamal and Salim’s Muslim mother is killed by a rampaging band of Hindus, out to kill Muslims. As the boys escape the mob, they encounter a boy painted in blue and dressed as the Hindu god/king Rama. During questioning, Jamal tells police that, “If it wasn’t for Rama and Allah, I’d still have a mother.”
While Jamal appears to have fallen away from his Islamic faith, he still believes in destiny—and the pieces strung together in the film seem to confirm his “faith.” Improbabilities pile on top of one another like cordwood, slowly drawing Jamal and Latika together again.
The film’s most religious person is, improbably, Salim. When he hears from his brother as an adult (after the pair has been separated for a long time), his first words are “God is great.” He may be a killer by vocation, but he still wakes up early in the morning to bow toward Mecca, praying for the forgiveness of his sins.
Jamal and Latika kiss twice, once on the cheek, and finally on the lips—a smooch that sets off a wild, joyous dance as the credits roll.
“[Kissing is] sort of like nudity here [in India]; how some people [actors] will do it and some people won’t,” director Danny Boyle told cinematical.com. “It’s quite a big thing there, but she [actress Freida Pinto, who plays Latika] understood it was necessary for the story, and I tried to convince her that it would be seen in a very gracious and beautiful way.”
Cultural restraint, though, didn’t prevent Boyle from showing the boys tracking down Latika on a street known for prostitution. They enter a brothel, where audiences see glimpses of half-clothed couples groping each other behind thin curtains, before the siblings finally find Latika, about age 12 or 13, performing in a belly dancing costume. The head of the orphanage is in the room, and he tells the boys that they can’t take his “prize” away. “Do you have any idea how much this little virgin is worth?” he says.
The duo does spirit Latika away, and we briefly see her wrapped in a towel in a hotel room. Later in that same room, Salim orders Jamal out by pointing a gun in his face—the insinuation being that by force he plans to have his way with Latika. Latika also tells Jamal to leave, as a way to preserve her friend’s life.
The next time we see Latika, she’s in the possession of a local gangster, who is attended by women dressed in tight, revealing clothing.
Salim, as a youngster, exhibits violent tendencies. When the children and guards laugh at him when he tries to sing, he lashes out, kicking and punching one of the adults. He later throws corroding liquid in the face of one of his captors, which allows him to escape with Jamal and Latika.
[Spoiler Warning] When Salim finds a gun, he shoots the orphanage director point-blank in the head. He later threatens some gangster henchmen with the piece, and then his own brother. By the time he’s grown, Salim appears to be a gangster assassin—ready and willing to do his boss’s dirty work. He eventually shoots his employer before being gunned down himself—an act of suicide by shoot-out.
Elsewhere, the boys’ mother dies after being hit in the face with a pole. On fire, a man runs through the streets while indifferent policemen play cards. A riot takes place near the waterfront; people are beaten. Jamal is beat up and nearly drowned in a bucket of water by police. They later string him up and attach a car battery to his toes, firing a charge of electricity through his thrashing body.
Salim throws up when he watches another child being blinded with a hot spoon. Latika has her cheeks slashed with a knife. Jamal punches Salim in the face, and we see him fantasize about both of them hurtling off a high building. Two youngsters are hit on the head with a book. A policeman hits a young Jamal, causing his eye to swell shut. Older, Jamal gets into a fight with a policeman before being strapped to a chair.
Deeply accented English makes a precise profanity count difficult: There are at least three f-words, close to 10 s-words and a handful of uses of “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and “bloody.” God’s name is misused four or five times. Vulgar words sporadically stand in for the names of sexual body parts.
Several characters smoke cigarettes, and a young Jamal is shown taking hits from a hookah. As a teenager, Salim rifles through an in-room hotel bar, downing its contents. Song lyrics reference marijuana and include the line, “Fly like paper/Get high like planes.”
A lengthy scene takes place around shack-like, open-bottomed latrines. It includes frank talk about bodily functions and culminates with Jamal diving into raw sewage to escape a locked outhouse. The boys make rude sexual gestures, call policemen “dogs,” play games on an airport runway and lie to get what they want. When they’re at the orphanage, they’re sent out to beg: Some of the kids carry babies or wear eye patches to look more sympathetic.
The boys steal food, shoes, pocketbooks and purses. Jamal lures a pair of wealthy tourists into a bad neighborhood to show them a bit of “real” India, where their Mercedes is stripped by fellow street urchins.
An 8-year-old Salim is seen naked from the side and rear: He runs to the showers after Latika mischievously crunches up hot chilies and places them on his genitals (hidden from moviegoers by a blanket) while he’s sleeping. The scene is played for laughs, with Latika and the rest of the orphanage chortling over his reaction. Jamal is shown taking a bath as a boy; bubbles cover most of his body.
If Charles Dickens was writing in 21st century India, Slumdog Millionaire could easily have been one of his stories. It carries all the trademarks of the literary master: Urban squalor, wayward children, evil adults, chaste love, serious serendipity.
It has one more resemblance to Dickens’ 19th century work: It is well-crafted and heartily engaging.
Here, nothing happens by accident. The movie boldly states that Jamal and Latika’s relationship was “written”—that is, fated to be—and that their lives together will be nothing short of blessed.
Working as something of an optimistic counterpoint to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story about living life backwards, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (or at least its cinematic reinterpretation), Slumdog Millionaire‘s Jamal spends his childhood as an adult, then finds himself at 18 with a lifetime of experiences behind him and a wide-open future ahead. Even our worst memories don’t have to suffocate us, Danny Boyle says. Instead, they can—as they do for Jamal—set us free.
“It’s sort of like it turns it on its head, that storytelling idea of the old person in bed recapping their life,” Boyle told firstshowing.net. “It’s a positive thing rather than it being something that’s sentimental, in a way.”
But to get there, Jamal sees things and experiences things no child should ever have to see or experience—either in real life or in a movie theater. The boys lose their mother, see their peers abused and sold into slavery—some of it sexual. They lie. They steal. They live in a bitter, cruel world. It’s the absolute antithesis of a glitzy, glamorous TV game show. And that’s partly the R-rated point.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.