I have a fiction handicap (that is, not an imaginary ailment but a disability that keeps me from truly enjoying a great deal of fiction), and it is this: I don’t believe in destiny. No, more than that: I despise the very concept of destiny, not just intellectually but emotionally, spiritually, viscerally. It doesn’t make sense to me. It angers me. I’m okay with true love and coincidence, but once people start talking about how something was meant to be, or everything happens for a reason, or the future is written in the stars, or someone can only be happy with his One True Soulmate—when that happens, I pull away. My heart goes hard. I simply can’t follow where that goes.
That reaction is a big problem with countless stories, countless books and movies, so as damaging as I think the idea of destiny is, I kind of wish that my reaction weren’t so extreme. Take Slumdog Millionaire. It’s a good movie, and I loved, say, the first two-thirds of it. But then our hero, Jamal, starts talking about his childhood sweetheart, Latika, as his One And Only Love—nothing else matters, they are destined to be together, she is his only desire—and he’s behaving in a manner that is, by any rational measure, obsessive and unhealthy and, frankly, frightening. He ignores her expressed wishes, he scorns his own future, and it’s all supposed to be romantic, and I’m just thinking, No, no, no, no, NO.
To me, this is bad writing. I don’t believe that Jamal, that anyone, would behave in this way under the given circumstances. It’s too ridiculous, too extreme. Hell, that whole conflict—the whole star-crossed Jamal-and-Latika melodrama—seems contrived and stupid. I understand that we are supposed to go along with it for the sake of the story, and I try—I do!—because I’ve been enjoying the movie. And I guess I enjoy the rest of the movie, too—kind of. But when it ends, I feel detached, unmoved, disappointed. I know that’s partly my fault, but surely it’s partly the failure of Slumdog Millionaire as well?
Let me back up. Jamal is a young man from Mumbai who’s on the verge of winning a fortune on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. The show’s producers can’t believe that this kid from the slums could legitimately win the grand prize, so they have him interrogated (to use the Orwellian parlance of our day), and Jamal explains, question by question, how he knew each answer. The explanations coalesce into a picaresque account of Jamal’s life, how he and his older brother, Salim, and their friend Latika scratched their way through a poverty-stricken existence, from early childhood to the present day.
I love that essential conceit, the idea of a life represented by a collection of trivia, scraps of information, lessons learned here and there. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy, adapting Vikas Swarup’s novel Q and A, finds heartbreaking poetry in the notion, and the saga that comes together is a fascinating one, well observed and well told. Versatile director Danny Boyle and his collaborators clearly have studied their Bollywood, for Slumdog borrows and celebrates the bright colors and energy of India’s own cinema—not to mention its musical sensibility, with a vibrant, beautifully integrated score by A.R. Rahman. Jamal, Salim, and Latika are each played by three different young actors, aging the characters from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, and all of them are expressive and charismatic, a joy to watch.
Indeed, it’s amazing how joyful the movie is, despite the occasional cruelty and violence and the extreme poverty it depicts. Slumdog doesn’t whitewash the hardship of the children’s lives, but neither does it wallow it that hardship. To varying degrees, Jamal, Salim, and Latika are smart and resilient—and, in a few key moments, very lucky. The movie allows us to revel in their successes and escapes without turning everything into a sanitized fairy tale.
Ultimately, though, it is a fairy tale, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But I don’t accept that the drama had to hinge on Salim undergoing a personality reversal mid-film, and Latika growing from a spunky little girl into a passive prize to be won, and, worst, Jamal’s loyalty metastasizing into a disturbingly single-minded, thoroughly unbelievable obsession. Maybe I overreact to all the “It is written” stuff, but that doesn’t mean that the storytelling isn’t flawed. Philosophical issues aside, the characters are poorly developed going into the final conflict, and that’s a shame because the lead-up is nuanced and memorable. The sequence with the Mumbai Fagin, the glorious train montage, the witty look at life around the Taj Mahal, the reveal on how Jamal chooses his answer to the cricket player question—all sharp and affecting. Why muffle those stories with such a dumb climax?
And then, as if my feelings about Slumdog Millionaire aren’t mixed enough, a charming Bollywood-style dance number enlivens the closing credits. And I love Bollywood dance numbers. See, I don’t begrudge Salim and Latika a happy ending (though I was weirded out by the closing kiss—no kissing in Bollywood!). I just hate to see that happy ending come in such a creepy package.