The classic fairy tales have staying power. Other stories have inspired and intrigued us, but the tales of Snow White, Peter Pan, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty let us live inside worlds of fifty-foot dragons, of pumpkin stagecoaches, of talking mice, and ships that fly. They spoke to us with the words of the ubiquitous human predicament: danger, cruelty, and poverty mixed with adventure, desire, and affection. We knew the stories were not real, but at the same time, we always intuitively understood that they were true. For that reason, the classic tales endure.
In that same masterful tradition of visual storytelling comes Danny Boyle’s surprisingly heart wrenching and endearing 2008 film, Slumdog Millionaire.
Slumdog is not real, we get that. Its larger-than-life portrayal of the slums of Bombay / Mumbai takes reality and blows it up to epic proportions that might make even sensationalistic Westerners raise an eyebrow. At the same time, we cannot help suspecting that it is true. Not for its depictions of dirty brothels, forced child labor or third-world mob violence, but because it tells us that miracles can happen and lost love can be restored. Or can it?
Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) lands on the streets of Bombay fighting not to live, but rather to keep from dying, after losing his mother to a violent, anti-Muslim rabble. Along with his older brother Salim and an orphaned girl, Latika (Freida Pinto), Jamal runs from danger into danger. Along the way, the brothers lose Latika, seemingly for good. They learn to fend for themselves, relying on wit, stealing, and luck.
We learn about Jamal’s childhood in flashbacks. Jamal, now a young man, is a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to be A Millionaire? Startlingly, he correctly answers question after question, moving steadily closer to becoming a millionaire—something not even India’s brightest have achieved. His uncommonly skillful dispatching of tough questions earns him overnight acclaim. The Indian public loves him. It also earns the skepticism of the show’s egotistical host. How can a chai wallah (tea seller) know so much? He must be cheating!
Before the final round of the game, Jamal undergoes torturous interrogation to elicit a confession. It is under interrogation that the excruciating details of his story come out. Jamal describes his survival on the streets, how he conned tourists at the Taj Mahal and stole food from the Sardarjis on trains. We also hear the painful details of his driving motivation: to find Latika. Chance meetings, fleeting moments, their lives moving in and out like threads weaving a ragged, beautiful tapestry. But just as quickly as the fabric forms, the realities of life unravel the edges again.
Between episodes of his story (which explains why he can answer so many questions) Jamal admits that he is not interested in the money. He came on the show because he knew that Latika would be watching. It is her favorite show.
Will he find her again? Will he be allowed to continue?
Our belief in the Slumdog story hinges on the answers to those questions. We need to believe in the possibility of a happy ending. We need to know whether green leaves can break through in a world of concrete and oil and mud. We need to know whether the fairy tales of our childhoods can make it in a real world. And while nobody is pretending that the story is really real, we have to know whether it is true.
Danny Boyle masterfully induces us to believe in Jamal. We cannot help but stick up for the under(slum)dog. In this fast-paced journey through a hectic world where nothing is for sure, Boyle has brought back the enchantment of the classic tales. And for that reason, Slumdog Millionaire will endure.
By now you have probably seen the film and have your own thoughts to share, but if not, get thee to a theater!
Jessica Sharpe writes from Chattanooga, Tennessee where she studies theater and speech at UTC.